Photo Essays

How Ai Weiwei Saw New York City

by Kyle Chayka on June 29, 2011

Installation shot of “Ai Weiwei: New York Photographs 1983-1993” at Asia Society (all photos by author)

Ever wondered what New York City looks like through the eyes of a great artist? In a newly opened exhibition at Asia Society, Ai Weiwei New York Photographs 1983-1993, viewers get the chance to see how recently released Chinese artist Ai Weiwei saw New York City in a series of diaristic photos taken between 1983 and 1993.

Featuring a rotating cast of fellow ex-pat friends, future Chinese cultural stars, New York City bums, protesters and intellectual acquaintances like Allen Ginsberg, Ai Weiwei’s photos form a picture of New York from the perspective of a wandering, ever-curious mind. Through the photographs, we witness Ai growing from a youth into an adult, a self-consciously posing, skinny kid turning into the powerhouse artist we know now, glaring out of the frame, self-possessed and self-assured.

We witness this transformation both through the self-portraits Ai habitually shot and through what the artist chose to depict in his photographs. The selection of 227 different prints was handpicked from his archive by Ai for a 2009 exhibition at Beijing’s Three Shadows gallery, a space run by famed Chinese photographer RongRong. As often as Ai shoots friends and fellow artists, he turns his camera on the city itself, as witness to the 1988 Tompkins Square Park riot and more than a few protests, along with daily details of urban life: homeless people camping out on the street, a parade, visits to the Whitney and the Museum of Modern Art.

This is a visual record of a young and restless artist making a life in this city, as so many attempt to do. Ai eventually left, returning home in 1993 to care for his dying father, the poet Ai Qing. But the artist’s vision of New York City is preserved forever in these photos, available for any voyeur to look in on and any fellow striver to take inspiration from. In Ai’s New York, what stands out most is the energy driving this personal vision.

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Ai Weiwei’s photos are hung in a floor-to-ceiling grid that gives them a powerful presence in the room. The hanging also emphasizes the sheer volume of images — 2,227 in total.

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Ai Weiwei, right, and his brother Ai Dan posing on the street. Ai’s coat, which features in many photos, was eventually turned into an artwork.

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Xu Weiling and Hu Yongyan, two of Ai’s fellow ex-pats, played violin on the street.

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Funnily enough, Ai was good pals with Beat poet Allen Ginsberg and shot many portraits of the aging writer, as well as of his apartment.

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A series of Ai’s self-portraits sees the artist playing with slow shutter speeds and motion blur.

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New York City’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade, Ai Dan and Xian Fu.

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Wall with windows, Lower East Side, 1987.

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Another installation view. The show includes several galleries’ worth of photos and goes on for quite a while.

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Ai at the Museum of Modern Art, mimicking a Warhol self-portrait (1987). It’s interesting to see Ai looking at art and re-processing it.

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A film student from Taiwan.

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Al Sharpton, 1988. Ai’s photography includes quite a few celebrity sightings.

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Tehching Hsieh, a Taiwanese performance artist famous for his long-running endurance works (1993).

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Bill Clinton on his last campaign stop in New York, 1992. Ai is a talented photojournalist — his newsy shots wouldn’t be out of place in the Times.

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A 1983 self portrait of Ai in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

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Profile of Duchamp Sunflower Seeds (1982). Ai’s early work often made use of readymades — objects picked up and turned into art. The practice continues today.

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A 1992 photo of a hardware store on Broadway.

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Ai Weiwei New York Photographs 1983-1993 is open through August 14, 2011 at Asia Society (725 Park Avenue).

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