The Art Of Ai Weiwei

The art activism of Ai Weiwei can be felt in four renditions this month, in four separate exhibitions that give viewers a chance to get to know the breadth of the famous Chinese artist. Lisson, both locations of Mary Boone and Soho’s sprawling Deitch Projects have banded together to create a comprehensive window into Wei’s contemporary mind. But the most moving of the exhibitions is at nearby Deitch projects, in a show called “Laundromat” that confronts the international refugee issue by transporting actual belongings found in refugee camps to New York City.
When walking into the newly- reopened Deitch Projects at 18 Wooster Street, the scene looks at first like a giant thrift store. Racks and racks of carefully organized clothing adorn the massive room, separated into garments worn by men, women and children of all sizes and ages. The mezzanine is lined with rows and rows of shoes, neatly arranged into a lengthy rectangle upon the floor. But the collection of retro clothing isn’t a pop up vintage shop- each piece was left by a refugee who spent time at the Idomeni refugee camp on the boarder of Greece and the former republic of Macedonia.

Within this context, the clothes become much more haunting, each a ghost of a person fleeing their home country in search of a better, safer life. Wanting to give the refugees represented in the exhibition their dignity, Wei and his team washed, pressed and cared for each garment that was left, presenting the belongings in a meticulously neat fashion. Paired with the racks of clothing are elements from Wei’s personal interactions with refugees- thousands of personal photographs of the artist with the people he met, the conditions they live in, and snippets of their lives line the walls like wallpaper. The floor is covered with tweets about the refugee crisis, from world wide news organizations, each visible through the hanging pants, skirts and coats.

Rooting the show in reality is a documentary on Idomeni, filmed by Wei and his crew. The film, which plays on a loop the duration of the show, focuses on a myriad of stories within the camp; a young pianist from Syria, a refugee woman and her cat, a large family from Afghanistan and scenes from Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Jodran, Israel Gaza and Kenya.

For a lighter Wei experience, “Roots and Branches” extends across the three other galleries. Enormous cast-iron tree trunks , paired with new wallpaper, evoke a felled forest at Lisson Gallery in Chelsea, while weathered sections of dead trees from Southern China mountains form a climbing 25 foot tree sculpture (and smaller LEGO sculptures) at Mary Boone Downtown. Mary Boone’s Chelsea location is filled with a meditative landscape made from 40,000 spouts broken from Chinese antique teapots.

Ai Weiwei has been a respected name in the art world for decades, but the Chinese artist became a household name when he was arrested and detained for 81 days by the Chinese government without having any official charges filed. His commentary and research on the lives of refugees feels especially important in the recent political changes our own country is facing. Be sure to catch all four exhibitions before December 23.

Deitch Projects, 18 Wooster Street 
Lisson Gallery, 504 West 24th Street
Mary Boone Gallery, 745 5th Avenue and 541 West 24th Street

Words by Lori Zimmer