Ai Weiwei: New York Photographs 1983-1993 (by Patricia Silva)

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Preparations for his exhibition at The Asia Society in New York were well underway when Ai Weiwei was detained earlier this year at Beijing Airport on April 3, 2011. En route to Hong Kong, he was detained for nearly three months before his release on June 22. Other artists critical of Chinese government practices remain imprisoned and/or detained. Shortly before his release, The Asia Society announced Ai Weiwei: New York Photographs 1983-1993, on view until August 14, 2011.


New York Photographs 1983-1993 exposes Ai Weiwei as an active and central member of the Chinese expatriate community: artists and intellectuals settled in the emerging avant-garde scene of the 1980s East Village. From his New York decade, the artist selected 227 photographs from a personal archive of 10,000 negatives. This exhibition is the first time these photographs are exhibited outside of China. Although the show is centered in New York, two images are from an assignment in Haiti for a media outlet.

Resisting the entrapments of documentary tradition, Ai Weiwei’s casual photography captured the evolution of  his conceptual art practice, his emerging political consciousness, and an engaged record of the East Village 80s culture—New York’s prominent hub of influential activity. Poetry readings, drag queens at Wigstock, Thompkins Square Park riots,  ACT UP AIDS demonstrations—Ai Weiwei’s archive chronicles the most pressing issues of that time: gender and racial politics, AIDS, homelessness, gentrification.

"Becoming more conscious of my life activities and that attitude was more important than producing some work."1 — Ai Weiwei

Unlike Jacob Riis’ photographs of New York slums one hundred years earlier, Ai Weiwei’s habitual immediacy wasn’t mission driven. Photographing was his way of note-taking or sketching. Without investment in photography as an art form, the eye was liberated. There is a paradoxical human relationship with a camera: the eye that looks for something might only see what it seeks, but the eye that seeks nothing might just see all. Casually but attentively, the daily life of a Chinese émigré in New York expanded beyond a diasporic circle and into broader contemplation. His lens wasn’t fogged by myths of American ascension. Instead, his lens sharpened focus on the inherent potential of American ideals, as exemplified by the East Village ethos of independence.

Political participation is an evident theme, as is mutual support for fellow artists.  Less than three years ago,  Ai Weiwei was scheduled to defend Chinese artist Tan Zuoren, accused of  “undermining the authority of the state” for demanding thorough investigations of collapsed buildings destroyed by the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan. But Ai Weiwei didn’t testify. Policemen stormed his Chengdu hotel room and arrested him, preventing his presence in court. Twenty years earlier, his unwavering support for the individual voice was already formed. Video artist Clayton Patterson was arrested for contempt of court for refusing to turn in a tape showing police brutality in the 1988 Tompkins Square Park riots. Since Ai Weiwei had been at the riot and photographed Clayton and the police officers, he turned the rolls of film over to the American Civil Liberties Union. His film served as evidence against police officers. 

The act of photography already emphasizes the photograph as evidence, but with Ai Weiwei, evidence is treated without formality, evidence is the result of personal accountability.  The DIY ethos of East Villagers in the 80s wasn’t lost on the artist. As one of the first to return to China from the New York community of Chinese intellectuals, he transported his experiences in the East Village with him, influencing creative communities in China to probe deeper. This exhibition shows the full range of influences and first-hand experiences shaping the outlook of an artist for whom social engagement is responsibility. Ai Weiwei witnessed in New York the same tension between the controlled and the oppressor. In my view, this space of opposition is magnified by the selected photographs, enabling a deeper understanding of Ai Weiwei’s work.


"In China, I felt there were crises so I left, but New York was the same and I was bored."2 — Ai Weiwei

It was an exploratory time for the artist. His photographs document a transition away from painting and drawing  into conceptual sculpture. Self-portraits with Warhol and Duchamp works indicate what impelled Ai Weiwei at the time. In one of Ai Weiwei’s photographs, the profile of Duchamp was shaped out of a wire clothes hanger, half filled with sunflower seeds (a popular Chinese snack). This piece anticipates Sunflower Seeds, 2010, created with 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds, each hand painted by hundreds of Jingdezhen potters (Jingdezhen is famed for imperial court porcelain). I’ve read that Sunflower Seeds references both nourishment and revolution, consumption and commercialization. The work was meant to symbolize collectivity and individuality, in theory and practice, but in my view there’s an obvious undercurrent of political caché to Sunflower Seeds. A sense recorded in his New York photographs. Sunflower Seeds was immersive and interactive: individuals could walk over them. The mass of individuals (seeds) are either stagnant or under the oppressor’s step. The scale of the human-to-seed ratio is staggering. With this piece, the artist explores oppositional space through weight distribution, while commenting on Chinese culture, and its trajectory of consumption and value.

The double tension between collectivity and individuality vis-à-vis consumerism and identity is explored in other Ai Weiwei works, which feature traditional Chinese materials such as pearls, stones, compressed tea, marble, and lacquered wood. The New York photographs explore similar tensions in different contexts, working with subject matter relative to its time and place. The most pervasive theme I noticed in his NY photographs also runs throughout most of Ai Weiwei’s work: a critical awareness of the power of one in relation to opposition.  A concept also documented with his Study in Perspective—Tianamen Square. Commercialization of heritage is a constant issue for both New York City and Beijing; in as much as pressures of national pride and shame are central to China and the United States. An artist with an eye on China and another on the West, Ai Weiwei found parallel struggles in both systems. Without aim, but projecting much clarity, Ai Weiwei’s photographs attest to a strength of conviction in dynamic formation.



(1) (2)  Interview by Stephanie H. Tung with Alison Klayman

Photograph: Ai Weiwei,
Washington Square Park Protest. 1988. Inkjet on Fantac Innova Ultra Smooth Gloss. Printed on
20 x 24-inch paper. Courtesy of Three Shadows Photography Art Centre and Chambers Fine Art.
Published July 2011.

Name index: 
Ai Weiwei