Ai Weiwei on Using Art to Connect
the Past and Present

Ai Weiwei's Life Cycle installation at the Marciano Art Foundation

Jordan Riefe
Ai Weiwei's Life Cycle installation at the Marciano Art Foundation
With three exhibitions opening this fall, Ai Weiwei is bringing his unique voice and stunning installations to Los Angeles.

With three exhibitions opening this fall, Ai Weiwei is bringing his unique voice and stunning installations to Los Angeles.

Jordan Riefe

Stools (2013), installed as part of Ai Weiwei: Zodiac at Jeffrey Deitch, Los Angeles

“Families are always being separated. So, the stools are a metaphor, an image of family life for generations, always sit on the same stool, do the same thing till modernization.”

Ai Weiwei

This autumn it’s Ai time in Los Angeles with artist-activist Ai Weiwei bringing not one but three solo shows to the West Coast culture hub. Connecting them is the artist’s customary blending of tradition and modernism, along with common themes advocating for human rights.

Life Cycle, at Marciano Art Foundation through March 3, features a new work of the same name, a massive installation of bamboo figures in a bamboo pontoon boat. It’s an extension of his 2017 installation, Law of the Journey, a similar construct made of inflatable PVC rubber. Cao/Humanity, at UTA Artist Space through December 1, is a more intimate show featuring recent sculptures in glass, marble and porcelain. And Zodiac, inaugurating former MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch’s new Hollywood space through January 5, is a mini-retrospective including a new iteration in LEGO blocks of the artist’s 2010 bronze sculpture series, Circle of Animals/Zodiac.

“It started with my fascination about my son’s LEGOS,” Ai says of an artwork that originated with his 2014-2015 Alcatraz installation, Trace, on political prisoners. Surveying that show’s 176 images of prisoners worldwide, he found that some were grainy or out of focus, so he used pixelation as an equalizer. For the new project, LEGO bricks became a 3-D equivalent of pixelation. But the LEGO company had a policy against using the toys for political purposes and would not cooperate. So, as he has so often in the past, Ai turned to social media.

“People started donating their children’s LEGOS to me. We had cars with open sunroofs, and people dropped their LEGOS in: 20 cars full of LEGOS everywhere, globally. That generated a discussion about censorship. After that, the LEGO company contacted me to say they made a mistake and they will abandon that policy.”

It’s a common tactic for Ai, as when he secured his own freedom following a 2011 arrest for tax evasion. After serving three months, international pressure spurred by social media became too much for Chinese authorities to bear. Observers claim the real reason for his arrest was for criticizing the handling of underprivileged citizens during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games and for drawing attention to subpar construction standards in the wake of an 8.0 earthquake that struck Sichuan, claiming 5,385 victims, most of them children.

“I’ve had such a long struggle with authority and went on the internet and did a lot of social programs, filming and stuff,” says Ai. He left Beijing in 2015, around the time that the international refugee crisis became central to his work. It is reflected in works like Life Cycle and Law of the Journey as well as his 2017 documentary, Human Flow, which he calls his “personal tribute to this world crisis of humanity.”

Life Cycle is the final piece created in his Beijing studio before it was bulldozed by authorities. The compound sat on a plot of grassy land, giving it the Chinese nickname, Cao Chang De. “On the internet, ‘cao’ means fuck. So we cannot use ‘fuck,’ so we use ‘cao,” he explains. “It’s to express yourself and not obey censorship. So, I thought I should make a sculpture of cao, cut it like grass. It’s very difficult.”

Ai Weiwei's Life Cycle installation at the Marciano Art Foundation
Jordan Riefe

Ai Weiwei's Life Cycle installation at the Marciano Art Foundation

Ai Weiwei's Life Cycle installation at the Marciano Art Foundation
Jordan Riefe

Ai Weiwei's Life Cycle installation at the Marciano Art Foundation

Ai Weiwei's Life Cycle installation at the Marciano Art Foundation
Jordan Riefe

Ai Weiwei's Life Cycle installation at the Marciano Art Foundation

Ai Weiwei's Life Cycle installation at the Marciano Art Foundation
Jordan Riefe

Ai Weiwei's Life Cycle installation at the Marciano Art Foundation

Ai Weiwei's Life Cycle installation at the Marciano Art Foundation
Jordan Riefe

Ai Weiwei's Life Cycle installation at the Marciano Art Foundation

Ai Weiwei's Life Cycle installation at the Marciano Art Foundation
Jordan Riefe

Ai Weiwei's Life Cycle installation at the Marciano Art Foundation

Ai Weiwei's Life Cycle installation at the Marciano Art Foundation
Jordan Riefe

Ai Weiwei's Life Cycle installation at the Marciano Art Foundation

Ai Weiwei's Life Cycle installation at the Marciano Art Foundation
Jordan Riefe

Ai Weiwei's Life Cycle installation at the Marciano Art Foundation

Ai WeiWei
Jordan Riefe

Ai Weiwei speaking at the Marciano Art Foundation

Ai Weiwei's Life Cycle installation at the Marciano Art Foundation
Jordan Riefe

Ai Weiwei's Life Cycle installation at the Marciano Art Foundation

Ai Weiwei's Sunflower Seeds, installed as part of Life Cycle at the Marciano Art Foundation
Jordan Riefe

Ai Weiwei's Sunflower Seeds, installed as part of Life Cycle at the Marciano Art Foundation

Sunflower Seeds and Spouts (foreground) installed as part of Ai Weiwei: Life Cycle at the Marciano Art Foundation
Jordan Riefe

Sunflower Seeds (2010) and Spouts (2015) installed as part of Ai Weiwei: Life Cycle at the Marciano Art Foundation

Ai Weiwei: Cao/Humanity at UTA Artist Space
Jordan Riefe

Ai Weiwei: Cao/Humanity at UTA Artist Space

Ai Weiwei: Cao/Humanity at UTA Artist Space
Jordan Riefe

Ai Weiwei: Cao/Humanity at UTA Artist Space

Installation view of Ai Weiwei: Zodiac at Jeffrey Deitch, Los Angeles
Jordan Riefe

LEGO Zodiac animals at Ai Weiwei: Zodiac, Jeffrey Deitch, Los Angeles

Installation view of Ai Weiwei: Zodiac at Jeffrey Deitch, Los Angeles.
Jordan Riefe

Installation view of Ai Weiwei: Zodiac at Jeffrey Deitch, Los Angeles.

The result on display in Beverly Hills at UTA Artist Space is Cao/Humanity, which features a mat of interlocking marble grass sculptures. With a central blade standing taller than those to the right and left of it, Cao mirrors a common motif in his work–the middle finger. In his Study of Perspective series, made from 1995-2010, Ai photographed his hand flipping the bird to a list of structures representing oppression and subjugation: the Reichstag, the Eiffel Tower, the White House and others, which form the background to his LEGO zodiac animals at Deitch’s Hollywood space.

Anchoring the Deitch show is Stools, (2013), a collection of roughly 6,000 wooden stools that were common throughout the northern Ming and Qing Dynasties. “They’re left over from households, but they’ve lasted hundreds of years,” he says of the 72-square-foot artwork in the gallery. “Families are always being separated. So, the stools are a metaphor, an image of family life for generations, always sit on the same stool, do the same thing till modernization.”

Stools, at Deitch, along with Spouts (2015), and Sunflower Seeds (2010), at Marciano, are examples of Ai linking the past with the present. Spouts separated from their Song Dynasty teapots, number roughly 300,000 laid out in a massive rectangle on the floor.

“It takes patience, time and to reflect on cultural conditions or economic conditions about 1,000 years ago. Why did people have to create so many?” Ai wonders “My work obviously reflects the history cause my biggest curiosity is how they lived and what kind of language they had, which kind of material reflects that society?”

Alongside Spouts, the countless porcelain sunflower seeds are sourced from the same rural Chinese village, Jingdezhen, that has specialized in porcelain for thousands of years. Created by 1,600 artisans over a number of years, the seeds amount to 49 tons.

“Everybody was involved in making seeds, but nobody understands–why seeds?” Ai reflects on his process working with village artisans. “I told them, the truth is I may exhibit it. At the time I didn't even know where. They said exhibit it? Why so many? I still cannot answer why.”

While he can’t fully explain his process, Ai can explain his motivation. His work draws meaning from its connection to the past. Working in major cities around the world, he noticed the first questions asked often have to do with origin by way of discussing identity. “It gives us a sense of trust and security,” Ai concludes. “We cannot see who we are unless we remember something about our past.”

About the Author

Jordan Riefe

Jordan Riefe has been covering the film business since the late 90s for outlets like Reuters, THR.com, and the Wrap. He wrote a movie that was produced in China in 2007. Riefe currently serves as West Coast theatre critic for The Hollywood Reporter, while also covering art and culture for The Guardian, Cultured Magazine, LA Weekly and KCET Artbound.