Renowned Chinese artist Ai Weiwei reflects on his work over the last two decades with his new exhibition titled Bare Life. For visitors, it’s an incredible opportunity to see the socially conscious and politically charged art that the artist, who is also a political prisoner and exile, has consistently created throughout his career. Within the walls of the Kemper Art Museum, many of his greatest installations are laid out thematically in a manner that causes new reflection on this work.
The exhibition layout, which was designed by the artist, breaks the work into two thematic sections. The first deals with the effects of human rights violations in relation to China and the global refugee crisis. The second tackles Ai Weiwei’s complex relationship with China’s more recent history. He forces viewers to examine the current state of our rights as citizens and what life is like when we are deprived of those rights.
As a centerpiece, Ai Weiwei’s seminal Forever Bicycles installation stretches across one gallery in a diagonal arch. The 720 stainless steel bikes speak to human vulnerability while also touching on the idea of mobility in China, where many travel by bicycle. Several walls are also covered in artist-designed wallpaper that, in classic Ai Weiwei fashion, takes a consumerist product and transforms it into a powerful messageboard. Here, his designs speak to the hardships of a refugee’s journey, from escaping conflict and war to enduring refugee camps.
With more than 35 works on display, Bare Life is essential viewing for any contemporary art lover and anyone who is inspired by Ai Weiwei’s quest to spotlight these difficult issues.
“We live in tumultuous times. Not a day goes by without reports of conflict, famine, and environmental destruction driving people from their homelands, of refugees and their struggles, of borders and walls intended to keep us apart from each other, of democracies in crisis, and more. Under these conditions we ask ourselves daily what creative practices mean today,” writes Carmon Colangelo, Ralph J. Nagel Dean and E. Desmond Lee Professor for Collaboration in the Arts at the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts. “The artist’s aesthetic response to the troubles of our time is a motivation for all those working to advance the social relevance of art.”
With his work, Ai Weiwei continues to push forward the discourse on important topics that affect people around the globe. For him, it’s a natural choice, as he shares that “we must understand that individual efforts and activism are never just about ourselves: we are units of existence for everyone.”
Ai Weiwei: Bare Life is on view at the Kemper Art Museum at the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts, Washington University in St. Louis until January 5, 2020.