How times have changed. In the white-hot media spotlight that has been thrown on Ai since his detention at the hands of Chinese authorities on April 3, Mayor Bloomberg has even declared that Ai Weiwei is a symbol of all that makes New York great, while christening a major public sculpture commission, "Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads," at the Pulitzer Fountain. And now, New York's Asia Society is set to open a large show of his photographic work, featuring some 227 photos he took during his New York days. The show will be on view June 29 to August 14.
Photography has long been been an important part of Ai's art practice, from his famous "Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn" (1995), which documents the artist performing the titular act, to his series of images that shows him giving the finger to sites of power, from the White House to Tienanmen Square — probably the best illustration of his iconoclastic spirit. The Asia Society show, however, focuses on the more documentary aspect of Ai's work, dating as it does from his formative New York days. It will include shots chronicling important countercultural events and depicting neighbors like Allen Ginsburg, as well as glimpses of the social circles of Chinese expats in which he moved, including fellow Chinese contemporary art legend Xu Bing, among others. (Xu went on to take over Ai's apartment after he returned to China to be near his ailing father.)
According to the New York Times's Kate Taylor, the show has been in the planning stages since before Ai Weiwei's detention, though the political uproar caused the prints involved in it to become inaccessible in his Beijing studio, making necessary the production of a new set. However, there is no doubt that the exhibition takes on a charged significance given the artist's ongoing plight. Indeed, it would not be the first time that the Asia Society has butted heads with the Chinese government. In 2008, China's Ministry of Culture attempted to ban donations of works focusing on the Cultural Revolution that were set to be shown at the institution.
Ai Weiwei's plight continues to be a cause célèbre among the international art community. In London, the Tate just installed a ten-ton pile of the artist's porcelain sunflower seeds (previously on view as part of the artist's celebrated Turbine Hall commission), explicitly to keep attention on his case. Last week, well-known European artists Anish Kapoor and Daniel Buren both announced that they are withdrawing from shows in China. "First I signed petitions to free Ai Weiwei," Buren told the AFP. "But as he is still being held, virtually in secret, after two months I think the best solution is for me to pull out."