The current exhibition of Ai Wei Wei New York 1983-1993 arrives in Budapest after being shown at the Asia Society in New York. It is a series of personal photos taken during the decade Ai Wei Wei’s spent in New York. Most of the 226 black and white photos exhibited are fairly straight forward and could easily be a friend’s generic Facebook “Trip to New York” photo album. However, what makes the exhibition compelling is the distance in terms of time, New York was a very different city 30 years ago, as well as the glimpses into the attitudes and genius which would later manifest themselves in the life and work of the art titan that Ai Wei Wei is today. To open the exhibition, Ai Wei Wei chose the following introduction written in 2008,
The New York I knew no longer exists…Looking back on the past, I can see that these photographs are facts, but not necessarily true…The present always surpasses the past, and the future will not care about today.
New York during the 80s was indeed a very different city. The AIDS epidemic was in full swing as was the crack epidemic. Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, and Jean-Michel Basquiat were running around Soho while the East Village where Ai Wei Wei lived remained rundown, a bit seedy, and dangerous with junkies living out of many of the abandoned buildings in Alphabet City. While most of the pictures are introspective, quietly posed, self portraits and portraits of friends around the neighborhood rather than of the debaucherous freakshows that were going on in places such as the Pyramid Club on Tompkins Square, apparent is Ai Wei Wei’s rebellious side especially in the face of the authorities. His close up shots of the Tompkins Square riots of 1988 show his willingness to enter the fray as well as his fascination with clashes between the masses and the police state. His photo of charging, baton wielding riot police is an amzing piece of photojournalism. Another photo which jumped out in the exhibition was his still life 1983 of sunflower seeds arranged in a coat hanger shaped in the profile of Marcel Duchamp. Of course Ai Wei Wei would later go on to fill the Tate Modern with millions of hand painted ceramic sunflower seeds. I do not think that I have seen anyone make the connection between that piece of work and his interest in the great master of Dada.
Overall the exhibition is wonderful documentation of a gritty New York that no longer exists along with subtle insights into a man who still exists and now appears larger than ever.
Ai Wei Wei New York 1983-1993 2012 August 16 – October 21 at Ernst Múzeum