Ai Weiwei: Bare Life

September 28, 2019 - January 5, 2020

The newly expanded and renovated Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum opened this fall with a major exhibition of work by Ai Weiwei. The renowned Chinese dissident artist and activist is internationally known for rigorous, compassionate, and complex artworks that address themes of political, ethical, and social urgency. Designed by the artist and curated by Sabine Eckmann, William T. Kemper Director and Chief Curator, Ai Weiwei: Bare Life will be on view from September 28, 2019, through January 5, 2020.


The exhibition features more than 35 artworks created over the last two decades in a wide variety of mediums—among them sculptures, installations, photographs, and films. A selection of newly conceived large-scale and site-specific projects are placed in dialogue with some of Ai’s most iconic works and several major artworks never before exhibited in the United States. Together, these objects provide new insight into Ai’s abiding concern for human rights and the global condition of humanity while showcasing his profound engagement with Chinese culture past and present—especially the radical shifts that have characterized China in the new millennium. 

Ai Weiwei: Bare Life, which is organized into two thematic sections, takes its title from the writings of the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, who has long examined the notion of bare, unprotected life and its manifestations throughout human history. In recent years, Agamben’s ideas have gained new force as approximately 70 million people have been displaced from their homelands and deprived of basic human rights. 

Bare Life Section
The first section, Bare Life, encompasses artworks that elevate into the realm of visibility those whose humanity has been ignored. Entering the Museum’s Barney A. Ebsworth Gallery, visitors encounter the mesmerizing Forever Bicycles (2012), a large-scale, site-specific installation that dominates the center of the room. Composed of 720 stainless steel bicycles, the artwork is a readymade of sorts, diagonally bisecting the gallery while also creating a monumental arch through which visitors can pass. 

To one side of Forever Bicycles, viewers will find a series of projects relating to victims of the devastating earthquake that struck Sichuan Province in 2008 and to Ai’s persecution by Chinese authorities for his outspoken political activism sparked by the event. Through sculptures, videos, and installations, Ai explores the Chinese government’s insufficient response to the quake, which resulted in the collapse of substandard school buildings and the deaths of an estimated 90,000 people, including more than 5,000 children.  

To the other side, viewers will find artworks reflecting Ai’s deep concern for the welfare and dignity of displaced people around the world. The immense wallpaper frieze Odyssey (2016) covers two of the gallery’s walls, narrating the journey of those forced to flee their homelands. Using hybrid artistic languages, Ai insists on the universal urgency of human coexistence in a shared world while bringing empathy and visibility to precarious lives.

Other projects in the section use the medium of film to focus on the effects of war and displacement across the world. In addition, the Museum will host public screenings of Ai’s longer documentary films about the refugee crisis, Human Flow (2017) and The Rest (2019). 


The exhibition's second section, Rupture, alludes to the German-Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt’s influential writings about modernity’s break from tradition. Here, visitors will find artworks that represent Ai’s creative engagement with China’s cultural legacy, from the radical erasures of the Cultural Revolution (1966–76) to the rapid globalization and economic reforms that have marked the beginning of the 21st century.

A focal point of this section, Through (2007–8) is a monumental installation not previously exhibited in the United States. The work is constructed from immense wooden pillars sourced from demolished temples. Crisscrossing the Museum's Garen Gallery at sharp diagonals, these beams intersect at various junctures and penetrate the tops of Qing-dynasty (1644–1912) tables, forming a complex network of interdependent structures that condense China’s ruptured history.

Also featured here, the triptych Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (2015), constructed from LEGO bricks, depicts Ai in the deliberately destructive act of dropping a Han-dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) urn. Like much of Ai’s practice, the artwork investigates the complex and artistically generative relationship between destruction and creation. Ai’s performative iconoclasm can be understood both as an ironic reenactment of the Cultural Revolution and as a metaphor for China’s break with its traditions and values. 

As a teaching museum within a major research university, the Kemper Art Museum is dedicated to exploring how art both responds to and shapes understandings of what it means to be human, in the past and present. Ai Weiwei: Bare Life speaks directly to this, providing students and the larger community with opportunities to participate in the global conversation around some of today’s most pressing issues. To accompany the exhibition, the Museum will present a wide range of public programs in collaboration with Washington University faculty, visiting scholars, artists, and local community partners. 

The accompanying catalog presents the artist’s work in dialogue with theoretical texts by the philosophers Giorgio Agamben (b. 1942) and Hannah Arendt (1906–1975) alongside interpretive essays that illuminate the artist’s work on the universal human condition, his engagement with historical Chinese artifacts, and his critical consideration of the effects of globalization. The book includes a new essay on human rights by Ai and an interview in which he discusses his artwork and activism. With more than 100 images, including installation photographs of the exhibition, the publication is designed by Lorraine Wild, Green Dragon Office, Los Angeles, and will be distributed by the University of Chicago Press.

Exhibition Support
Leadership support for exhibitions is provided by the William T. Kemper Foundation. Support for Ai Weiwei: Bare Life is provided by the Konzen family and PGAV Destinations; Bunny and Charles Burson; and the Missouri Arts Council, a state agency. Additional support is provided by Emily and Teddy Greenspan, Elissa and Paul Cahn, Nancy and Ken Kranzberg, the David Woods Kemper Memorial Foundation, the Hortense Lewin Art Fund, and members of the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum.

About Ai Weiwei 
Ai Weiwei’s work has been exhibited at major venues around the world, including recently at the Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo in Mexico City (2019), Israel Museum in Jerusalem (2017), the National Gallery Prague (2017), the Sakıp Sabancı Museum in Istanbul (2017), the Taipei Fine Arts Museum (2011), and the Tate Modern in London (2010). In 2017 he was commissioned to create a citywide installation, Good Fences Make Good Neighbors, for New York City’s Public Art Fund. His many honors include Amnesty International’s Ambassador of Conscience Award (2015), the inaugural Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent (2012), and the Chinese Contemporary Art Award for Lifetime Achievement (2008). Read more >>




Image Credits

Installation views, Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, 2019. Photos: Joshua White / JWPictures.com

Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 2015. LEGO bricks, triptych, 94 1/2 x 78 3/4 x 1 3/16" (240 x 200 x 3 cm) each. Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio.