The contemporary art world is often seen as a money-driven machine trafficking in an obscure product tailored to the elite. International star Ai Weiwei certainly generates work that can leave the uninitiated scratching their heads. In 1995, he issued “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn,” a photographic triptych showing him doing just that. But, as an artist for whom tweeting and blogging have been as central to his work as any other medium, he’s spoken truth to power in his native China (and paid the price of detention) and demonstrated a formidable aesthetic activism, documenting, for example, the refugee crisis through art. The Museum of Contemporary Photography — which has never shied away from less-than-pretty pictures — now hosts the artist’s first solo Chicago exhibition, “#AiWeiwei.”
Born in Beijing in 1957, Ai lived early on in a labor camp in Northeast China and grew up in Shihezi, Xinjiang, where his father, a poet, had been exiled as an enemy of the state. He lived in the U.S. as an art student in the ’80s, but returned to China when his father fell ill in 1993.
“#AiWeiwei” features diaristic photos the artist made in the 1980s and 1990s, chronicling his life in New York and Beijing, along with more recent examples of what he calls “photo activism.”
Ai is at ease with the selfie. The seemingly random and ridiculous 2014 photo “Leg Gun” shows him — shirtless in a straw hat — cocking his shoeless leg like a weapon. It was a time when the Chinese authorities had curtailed his activities and the artist felt he “couldn’t make a move.” When he posted it on his Instagram feed, countless fans responded with their own versions. But as Ai told MoCP’s executive director, Natasha Egan, the upshot of all this was no laughing matter for him. At the time, his passport had been confiscated. When it was finally returned, he was told the authorities might have returned it earlier, if not for that single image. “They were afraid I had become someone who could make something happen. I understood this wasn’t just a little funny thing. It really shook the central foundation of political power.”
Through July 2, Museum of Contemporary Photography, 600 S. Michigan. Free; Mocp.org
Image at top: “Ai Weiwei, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, 1983” from the series “New York Photographs, 1983-1993”