“Bare Life,” which inaugurated the Kemper Museum’s newly expanded and renovated galleries, operated on several levels at once. First and foremost, this dense and multifaceted exhibition was a retrospective of Ai Weiwei’s work from the past 15 years; dozens of works in an array of media addressed themes ranging from human rights to political dissent to globalism. Since Ai’s 2012 retrospective organized by the Hirshhorn, when he was still forbidden to travel outside of China, he has gone into self-imposed exile in Europe and devoted himself to witnessing and representing the global refugee crisis, the subject of his most recent works.
This was also a thematic exhibition, however, divided by curator Sabine Eckmann into two interrelated concepts. The first, which inspired the title, was Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s notion of “bare life”—human existence stripped of political and legal protection, when the individual is separated from the apparatus of state citizenship, whether though exile or political persecution. The second theme was connected to the concept of “rupture” as explored by Hannah Arendt—a broken link in history or tradition, in particular the rupture brought about by modernization, a persistent theme in Ai’s work.
Finally, “Bare Life” was a polemic about exhibition practice. Designed by the artist, the two main galleries functioned as multimedia installations, overwhelming the field of vision. Each gallery was dominated by a single, oversize, site-specific work that viewers could walk around and through. Vitrines and floor sculptures stood throughout the galleries, and the walls were covered with imagery as wallpaper, punctuated by video monitors and framed photographs and documents. Ai’s intent was to thoroughly disrupt the white-cube aesthetic, which tends to neutralize and isolate works of art. Here, in contrast, it was impossible to view individual works in isolation. The effect was to forge connections between works and to prohibit disinterested, passive contemplation.
The “bare life” gallery featured Ai’s now famous Forever Bicycles (2012), versions of which have been shown around the world. Consisting of hundreds of interlocking stainless steel bicycles that seem to go on forever (punning on the name of the ubiquitous Chinese “Forever” brand bicycles from Ai’s youth), the towering structure offered a dazzling optical experience, but it also acted as a screen, enabling glimpses of the works beyond. The bicycles metonymically refer to the ordinary, humble bodies that they are designed to transport. This gallery focused on human vulnerability, with works devoted to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake (its devastating death toll covered up by the Chinese government) and to the present-day global refugee crisis. In both cases, the structures of power (whether Eastern or Western, authoritarian or democratic) have abdicated not only political, but also human responsibility. Ai is determined to memorialize victims who might otherwise be forgotten and to probe the political systems abetting the erasure of their rights. This gallery also included works referring to his personal ordeals of surveillance and interrogation at the hands of Chinese authorities.
Ai’s recent projects addressing the experience of refugees included his Odyssey wallpaper (2016), which covered two walls, presenting a Greek-style frieze illustrating the various stages of the epic journey undertaken by refugees past and present. The hazards of modern-day migration were most poignantly evoked by Tyre (2016), which replicates in marble a stack of three truck tire inner tubes of the kind used by refugees as life preservers in the Mediterranean Sea. Rendered hyper-realistically, Tyre monumentalizes these utterly ephemeral but, for those facing extreme peril, precious objects.
Through (2007–08), a mammoth, asymmetrical structure of wooden beams salvaged from dismantled Qing Dynasty temples and interpenetrating antique wooden tables, all fastened together by traditional joinery techniques, dominated the gallery devoted to “rupture,” projecting diagonally through space. Here again, viewers could look and walk through the work. Ai has often explored the obliteration of history and tradition in contemporary China. The gallery’s largest wall was covered with Provisional Landscapes (2002–08), a wallpaper depicting 128 photographs of transitional urban spaces where old buildings had been demolished to make room for new construction. Other works alluded to the bulldozing of Ai’s Shanghai studio by the authorities in 2011; the large rectangular block that forms Souvenir from Shanghai (2012), for instance, was fashioned from the studio’s rubble. Ai seems to suggest a link between the razing of traditional architecture and the politically motivated leveling of his studio.
The overall message of the show was a timely one of interconnectedness and mutual responsibility. As Ai states in the excellent catalogue, designed to accompany the exhibition and supplement it, “When others are stripped of their freedom, you also lose yours.”