When you think of major cultural figures of 1980s New York, names like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Run-D.M.C. and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles all come to mind. Though Ai Weiwei might now rank as a towering contemporary art sage, he could hardly be considered to have been in the same league during the cultural moment when New York was a cheaper and more authentically shitty place to live. The new show at the Asia Society Museum in Manhattan, Ai Weiwei: New York Photographs 1983-1993, is Ai’s personal record of his twenty-something nascence, fleshing out his pre-famous years of gestation for the now-interested New York audience.
The selection of 227 photographs from over 10,000 images he recorded over ten years in New York are being shown for the first time outside of China, with each image personally selected by Ai. Though flying out to see the show on our extravagant Shanghaiist expense account would ideally grant us the full measure of the work, the small sampling of photographs on the Asia Society website nonetheless manages to give us an idea of Ai’s East Village salad days.
Quite standard for anyone who first picks up a camera, the collection includes shots of pretty girls and pictures of the photographer shooting himself in the mirror, among other self-portaits. One image, ‘Abandoned Building on the Lower East Side, 1987’, is reminiscent of shots that no self-respecting tourist turned on by urban decay would leave New York without: dogs peering out amidst a mise-en-scene of graffiti and non-functioning doors.
Besides images of a thinner and younger Ai traipsing around iconic New York spaces, some of the most fascinating images are of Ai’s friends who knew him in New York, many of whom are now major names in contemporary Chinese culture: one shot includes the Oscar-winning composer Tan Dun (谭盾) and the Qingdao Symphony Orchestra conductor Hu Yongyan (胡咏言) hanging out outside the Pyramid Club on Avenue A in 1986. The director Feng Xiaogang (冯小刚) makes an appearance, sitting on top of a rented Chevy parked in Times Square in 1993, likely dreaming of special effects and record breaking box-office grosses.
But other than the celebrity appearances (Allen Ginsberg looks over some sheets with seminal photographer Robert Frank in 1989!), there is little in to indicate that Ai would become the eventual artistic success of the present day. Granted, we’re unable to take the full measure of the entire collection, but the shots that are available for online viewing are prosaic at best and dull at worst. Some men sitting on benches in Battery Park, shoeshiners in the basement of the World Trade Center (may it rest in peace). Performers waiting around for the Chinese New Year parade to begin on Mott Street in Chinatown.
However, intriguing images of policemen clashing with demonstrators hint at Ai’s penchant for political engagement, a struggle that is now as renown as his art, if not arguably more so. Some critic in the near future will make great hay over how New York was where Ai developed his social consciousness, we’re almost sure of it.
The show at the Asia Society Museum on 725 Park Avenue (at 70th Street) is currently running, and ends on August 14th.
Photos from Three Shadows Photography Art Centre in Beijing, in association with the Asia Society.