From 1983 to 1993, artist, architect, and activist Ai Weiwei lived in New York City. Ai, who was 26 years old when he arrived, only returned to China a decade later when he received word that his father, Ai Qing, a writer of extraordinary renown, lay dying. This extended stay in the United States would go on to shape his vision and his work as he entered the avant-garde scene head on. Not yet famous, Ai lived in a tiny apartment in the East Village, where he befriended the likes of Allen Ginsberg, familiarized himself with the work of Joseph Beuys, and allowed himself to be influenced by Andy Warhol. During his decade in New York, Ai took more than 10,000 photographs. From this archive, he personally curated a collection of more than 220 for exhibition at the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Germany,… and is now available in a beautifully produced large format paperback book titled Ai Weiwei: New York 1983–1993 (Distanz).
The book takes us deep inside Ai’s New York sojourn, one that is as telling of the artist’s development as it is about New York at the time. Ai lived and worked in a studio on East 3 Street during a period of political and cultural unrest that was perhaps the last hurrah of New York’s bohemian period. As John Tancock writes in the book’s introduction, “Several intertwining narratives may be discerned in this sequence of photographs taken over a ten-year period. First, perhaps, is Ai Weiwei’s development as an artist and acknowledgement of the influence of several Western artists on his thinking. Second, there is the day-to-day documentation of the life of a large number of Chinese artists, musicians, and friends who passed through New York and very often used his apartment as a crash-pad. Also documented is Ai Weiwei’s friendship with such East Village luminaries as Allen Ginsberg, whose anti-establishment, anti-authoritarian stance clearly resonated with him.
“Above all there is his response to the East Village itself as it evolved during the time he lived there from urban wasteland to desirable commercial real estate, the transition giving rise to increasingly violent confrontations between the local residents and the police. The longer Ai Weiwei lived in the East Village, the less feasible it became for him to socialize with his artist friends and produce the occasional work of art while ignoring the impact of politics on his immediate environment. He was in New York during the summer of 1989; he needed to go no further than Tompkins Square Park a couple of blocks from where he lived to see evidence of police brutality.”
Ai Weiwei: New York 1983–1993 offers an incredible look at the artists during such an influential and intensive period in his life. Along with the photographs, the book features an interview with Ai by Stephanie H. Tung with Alison Klayman. Ai offers enigmatic insights into his work as a photographer, one that is similar to that of the amateur, stating that, “There’s no meaning. I just had the camera and took pictures. There’s not too much thought in it. The way you photograph with the camera now doesn’t necessarily have any thought behind it either…. I don’t really like to take photos that much actually. It’s handy—I just take one photo.” Yet he took 10,000 photographs over the course of a decade, quite a commitment for someone who acknowledges he didn’t really like to photographs that much and, perhaps, this is where it gets interesting…
Ai Weiwei: New York 1983–1993 is a visual diary, a record of a person, a milieu, a place, and a time. It transports us into a very intimate world that is without pretense, and seemingly without design. We see life as it is being lived, not for the camera, but for the experience of it, and the best of Ai’s photographs reflect this, a natural, unguarded, casual air that allows us to perceive what simply is. We see the East Village through the eyes of its people and we begin to reflect, to remember when to consider both Ai and New York as a study of contrasts. Ai Weiwei: New York 1983–1993 expands our knowledge and our perceptions of the artist as a young man, one that straddles two worlds of insider and outsider, American and foreigner, very much the way New York itself is.
Perhaps it is knowing that the act of photography was not seen as an act of art in the mind of Ai, and it is by way of this revelation that the photographs feel that much more personal, that much more unguarded. It is here that we pause and consider the effect of photography in both the life of the artist and the amateur alike. It is the photograph that is both witness and evidence after the fact, the document, even proof, so to speak, that any of this even happened at all. And it is here that Ai acknowledges the fact, that maybe underneath it all, this was the unconscious raison d’etre for the act of photographing his life: “If you don’t have to remember something, then it seems like it never actually happened. Then I wonder how many things we jut don’t remember or will be surprised by in our real history. Our reality.”