You have probably heard of Ai Weiwei, the politically outspoken Chinese artist who recently tried to board a flight from Hong Kong and was detained by his own government for three months. A show of hundreds of black-and-white photos from the artist’s archive is now on view at the Asia Society.
Mr. Ai’s oeuvre is largely comprised of conceptual and installation art, and those who visit this exhibition to familiarize themselves with his work will be disappointed. Taken between 1983 to 1993, the photographs instead document the decade between the artist’s 25th and 35th birthdays: they are a visual diary of a now-celebrated figure as a young man.
As an unknown art student at Parsons newly arrived from Beijing, Mr. Ai was an outsider in multiple ways in New York in 1983. You can see him clocking his Chinese identity in images of Chinese-Americans from Mr. Zhang from Fujian. Owner of the First Avenue Chinese Takeout (1987), to newspaper vendors and Chinese New Year’s celebrants.
But his real community is a group of expatriate artists from Beijing. The cast is small and we quickly catch on to the important characters, among them Chinese composer Tan Dun (then a PhD student in composition at Columbia); film director Chen Kaige (who directed a Duran Duran video during this time), and Mr. Ai’s brother Ai Dan. The setting is the East Village and the Lower East Side. Tompkins Square Park and the Pyramid Club, squats, drag festivals and police riots provide context to and relief from the nearly perpetual theater of Mr. Ai’s studio apartment. Even as the address shifts from East Third Street to East Seventh, the same bed, mirrors and posters on the wall recur. Mr. Ai keeps the kind of apartment where anyone can stay over but they are fair game for his camera: Wang Keping. East 3rd Street Apartment (1987) consists of four candid shots of this friend sleeping. The protagonists are portrayed not as worldly and ambitious Lucien de Rubemprés, but more like the introspective characters of Nan Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency. Hu Yongyan (1986) in briefs on a bare mattress; Self-Portrait. East 3rd Street Apartment (1986), standing naked on chair; Zhou Lin and Cat (1986) in which the subject is thoughtful, bare-legged, set the early tone.
This is not a show about fame, per se: the only sites that figure nearly as prominently as the studio apartment are the Laundromat and the subway. But it is about the superlative quality Manhattan lends even the most quotidian moments. Ai Dan and Ai Weiwei. Laundromat (1987) is evocative of those first giddy years in the city when adding “in New York” could turn the most mundane task—two brothers doing laundry—into something glamorous. Allen Ginsberg shows up at the apartment in 1986 yet Mr. Ai’s snapshots of Western cultural icons like Ginsberg or Robert Frank tell us nothing new about those Beat legends, and everything about how much it meant to the fledgling artists to have them there. Zhao Fei, Alaifu and Zhang Baoqi at the CBGB Club (1993) shows our protagonists drinking and looking slightly out of place in the quintessential punk club. Most telling is East Village Street (1987), in which a friend’s face emerges behind a discarded picture frame: life is art, the gesture insists, and the photographer registers his agreement with a click. Mr. Ai’s images also track his influences. In Front of Duchamp’s Work, Museum of Modern Art (1987) pays homage to the patron saint of Mr. Ai’s museum excursions, but more revealing is At the Museum of Modern Art (1987), in which the artist self-consciously makes the same gesture as the Warhol self-portrait behind him.
Whitney Museum (1989) is the rare piece exhibited with conceptual connections to Mr. Ai’s later work. In it a translucent “X” appears in front of art at the museum. Studies of Perspective, black-and-white photos in which Mr. Ai flips off famous works of architecture and art (1995-2003), Tiananmen Square, the Eiffel Tower and the Mona Lisa among them, would follow. Both projects owe something to a body of work not shown here: Kwong Chi Tseng’s deadpan black-and-white photographs of himself in a vintage Mao suit in front of monuments, also from the late 1980s.
We also get a glimpse Mr. Ai’s political consciousness, and the curators make much of Tompkins Square Park circa 1986 in this context. While he certainly documents the park’s rock concerts, violent clashes with police, freaks, punks, wigstock drag queens, late hippies, AIDS protests and hapless smokers, he also gets its morning mode, when no one is there and it’s fresh and empty. He registers all of this with the detachment of a non partisan: Police, politicians, incidents, outrageous behavior. But beyond the politics, the strength of the show is how it catches a tiny community in the act of becoming: Beijing in New York, caught in amber with all the luminous intimacy that shimmers between friends.
In 1993 Ai Weiwei’s father Ai Qing became ill and the artist moved back to Beijing to care for him. He never took another apartment in New York. In Beijing, besides making art—like a recent installation of over 100 million handmade porcelain sunflower seeds at the Tate Modern—he curates exhibitions, publishes books and engages in the media-savvy political activism that has earned him his government’s opprobrium.
And yet, echos of downtown Manhattan remain: according to the exhibition, Mr. Ai lives in a neighborhood that he helped pioneer known as “Beijing’s East Village.” Groups of obscure young artists are undoubtedly documenting its streets and studios today.