“Instagram is silly, meaningless, senseless,” Ai said. “I use it like a sketchbook.” Mid-interview, he snapped a photo of me and shared it, captionless, with his nearly half a million followers on Instagram. In July, I met the artist, who was sun-tanned and jet-lagged, in Aspen, where he was being honored with the International Artist Award at Anderson Ranch, an idyllic arts center tucked in the Rocky Mountains.
This fall, Ai is opening three back-to-back shows in Los Angeles: “Life Cycle,” an exhibition featuring three large-scale installations, including an airy bamboo sculpture of a raft crowded with figures, at the Marciano Art Foundation (September 28 – March 3, 2019); an installation of salvaged stools and Lego-based portraits at Jeffrey Deitch’s new gallery (September 29 – January 5, 2019); and a marble, grass-patterned sculpture at UTA Artist Space (from October 4). Together, the shows are the most extensive display of Ai’s works Los Angeles has ever seen.
From masterful sculptures and imaginative installations to feature-length documentaries and hard-metal music videos, Ai is skilled at traversing mediums and subject matter — often circling back to themes of migration in his art, as in the titular work of “Life Cycle.” “The refugee crisis is so big and so real,” he explained. “I don’t think I have one show that can completely cope with that.” This summer, Ai trekked across Bangladesh with his 9-year old son to bear witness to the Rohingya refugee crisis and to conduct research for his next film. (In 2017, Ai released Human Flow, a documentary about the global refugee crisis that traces how political violence and environmental degradation has forced more than 65 million people from their homes.)
Ai himself knows what it is to be displaced. In 2011, he was detained in China for 81 days on charges of tax evasion. After his release, the government retained his passport for four years — delayed, no doubt, by his high-profile status and his fierce and persistent criticism of the Chinese government. Germany granted him asylum in 2015, and Ai now lives in Berlin with his partner, the filmmaker Wang Fen, and their son. When he left China, he said, “a very high official told me, ‘Ai Weiwei, next time you’re here, we’re not going to let you out.’ I don’t know if that is a warning or a threat.”
In the years since, Ai has maintained a studio in Beijing to host his curatorial projects and production team. But early in August, the Chinese government ordered the sudden and total demolition of the space, which is documented in harrowing detail on Instagram. It echoed the events of 2011, when his newly built Shanghai studio was razed with little warning.
His second studio, in East Berlin, sits on the edge of Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg, and acts, according to Ai, “very much like a port. Everything is boxed up.” He said, “I feel so strange when I go to hotels or meet with trustees and there is artwork everywhere, because there isn’t a single artwork in my house.”
In China, the name “Ai Weiwei” is nearly unsearchable online. Government agencies have scrubbed the internet so that his works, which shed light on China’s human rights violations and building projects that reek of corruption, are only visible to audiences outside of the country. (Before his arrest, Ai blogged, tweeted, and Instagrammed using a special VPN, which is widely practiced but technically illegal in China.)
“I question my status as an artist,” he says, “as I do so many other things now.” Ultimately, he says, “artists can be activists” too.