ST. LOUIS — In the main gallery of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s exhibition Bare Life, on view through Sunday at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University, two stories of floor-to-ceiling wallpaper dwarf the viewer with a cascade of middle digits extending out in a pinwheel formation, aptly titled “Finger” (2015). On the opposite wall, the mural-sized “Odyssey” (2016) chronicles in 25 horizontal rows the plight of the contemporary refugee — mingling the profiles of migrants, protestors, soldiers, and police with art historical visuals from ancient Greece and Egypt. Is one wall flipping off the other? Or museum-goers so insulated from the barbarous world beyond? Or is “Finger” commenting on the distinctly American penchant for accepting or ignoring global iniquities, so long as our own comforts are ensured?
To see Ai’s exhibition Bare Life — his first major show in the Midwest, and his first-ever solo show at a US university — is to grapple with such philosophical and ideological abstractions, by way of the artist’s diffusion of worldwide political issues. Long a motif in Ai’s work, the middle finger shows up again in two photographic prints dated 1995 and 1997 from the Study of Perspective series. In one, his own finger is pointed at the White House; in the other, alongside it, his finger points toward Tiananmen Square. Prankishly conflating the two superpowers, the US and China, the works call attention to the continued dangers of unchecked state authority — prompting a reconsideration, as we move into 2020, of how alike the two countries are or are not.
In our conversation during his visit to the Kemper, Ai put it bluntly:
We can see that different societies have different types of propaganda, but they have the same character. People feel powerless. They don’t trust any media anymore, then they don’t trust any authority anymore. When there is no sense of trust, they have lost the legitimacy of the power. And the only thing that can solve it is a revolution. But of course in a democratic society, the word “revolution” cannot be mentioned or talked about — because it’s designed in many ways to keep that from happening.
Bare Life features an impressive selection of Ai’s work across his three-decade career, along with site-specific installations the artist designed to complement the building’s design by architect Fumihiko Maki. While his political commitment comes through in many works, it’s hard to square talk of “revolution” with Ai’s staggering mainstream US success, epitomized by his reception at an elite private university.
The eve before the opening, Ai seemed to hold nearly messianic sway over the audience gathered at a Q &A that, weeks earlier, had sold out in a spectacular two minutes. While his conversation with curator Sabine Eckmann insightfully framed his work within art historical and political contexts, none of the connections between his role as a dissident and activist and St. Louis’s own recent history of uprisings were broached at all. The conversation felt entirely detached from its setting, less than eight miles south of West Florissant Ave., the site of the Ferguson protests. While compelling in his general defense of human rights, much of what he said onstage didn’t go far beyond the UN Declaration drafted 70 years ago. When stripped of not just local, but national, exigencies, what could be at risk for the artist, or for those clinging in the seats to his every word?
Ai seemed refreshingly nonplussed about all the hoopla at the press preview the next morning, waggishly filming those in the audience when not addressing their questions. This irreverence was less charming when he proceeded to film me with his phone during the first three minutes of our brief interview, in which I shared that his piece “Tear Gas Canisters” (2016) reminded me of the National Guard’s presence in Ferguson.
At this point, Ai lowered his cell phone away from my face, and took some time to respond.
Well, I know very little about it. I know that this [Michael Brown’s shooting] happened to an 18-year-old Black guy, a kid being killed by the police. It happens so often, and reflects conditions in the United States. After so many years, it’s still considered a democratic society, a land of freedom, but you still have so much social and economic injustice hiding everywhere. Communities are so divided. Of course, that is a general concern of my practice. But since there are so many cases, everyone needs attention and a true investigation. So I’m not casually going to give out a statement. That would be very irresponsible.
In light of his outspoken support of the Hong Kong protestors, his restraint regarding civil disobedience in the city hosting Bare Life was surprising. After all, the exhibition title references philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s term for the state of human life in which individuals are perpetually subjected to outside control. We next discussed “Bombs” (2019), a brand new work created specifically for the Kemper atrium’s soaring curvilinear wall. Towering over viewers, “Bombs” bombards the viewer with life-size renderings of 43 “killing machines,” as Ai put it, organized chronologically and listed with their respective country of origin. (When asked about the small-diameter bombs in the bottom right corner, Ai was unaware that Boeing, headquartered in St. Louis, has produced these weapons for years.) He explained of the piece,
I am not giving a political statement, but look at the numbers. Who designed these bombs? Who’s most powerful? Who exported these to Saudis? Who made Yemen become such an area — or Afghanistan or Iraq? For what reason? Of course, [it’s] simply American national interests. […] Because you sacrifice people’s lives for your own corporate profit. We have to think about it. If you don’t think about it, you’re part of it.
But are people thinking about it? In the kind of way that might cultivate accountability, avoidance of military-industrial corporate power, or even dissent? Or does his “critical stance toward systems of authority,” as the museum literature states, abstract “authority” to the extent that it becomes hard to know what, if anything, to rise against?
At least one patron I overhead was thinking about her role in a new way. “I was faced with the moral limits of my own philosophy,” she said to her solemn father at the museum cafe. “I felt helpless.” When I asked her if she knew what to do with this feeling, she responded candidly. “I don’t know. It forced me to wrestle. That was enough.”
And maybe she’s right. Watching the crowds file in and out of the galleries in their sensible winter clothes, stare up at Bombs, and frown in front of the flatscreens of the artist’s video work, it seemed — to use Ai’s term — “irresponsible,” if initially tempting, to dismiss the whole thing as faux punk posturing. If the show genuinely goads Americans to introspect, to wrestle, then perhaps Bare Life isn’t so empty.
Ai Weiwei: Bare Life continues at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum (Washington University, One Brookings Drive, St. Louis, Missouri) through January 5.