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Ai Weiwei and The Two East Villages: Part One

This special two-part series explores Ai Weiwei’s experiences in two different East Villages — one in New York and the other in Beijing — both of which were hubs of artistic experimentation and influence. In the first installment, we will delve into Ai Weiwei’s formative years in New York, where he developed both his career and his identity. Next week, we will turn our attention to Beijing East Village, a collective of artists in the 1990s who were at the forefront of contemporary Chinese art.

In 1981, a 24 year old student, Ai Weiwei, moved to the United States. Ai, born on August 28, 1957, was among the first Chinese students to take the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) and belonged to the first wave of Chinese students who pursued higher education abroad after China’s 1980 reform. He lived in the US for approximately ten years, residing in Philadelphia and San Francisco before eventually making his way to New York. While there, he briefly attended both the Parsons School of Design and the Art Students League of New York. 

Mirror, 1987. Photo by Ai Weiwei. Courtesy of Three Shadows Photography Art Centre and Chambers Fine Art.

When Weiwei arrived in New York to study art, he also saw it as an opportunity to discover himself. He took on a range of jobs, including working as a construction worker, a babysitter, an extra in the Metropolitan Opera’s production of “Turandot,” as well as a street sketch artist, catering to tourists in popular areas like Times Square and Washington Square Park. His East 7th Street basement apartment also became a popular crash pad for visiting Chinese artists, such as composer Tan Dun, filmmaker Chen Kaige, and artist Xu Bing. 

Allen Ginsberg and Ai Weiwei, 1988. Photo by Ai Weiwei. Courtesy of Three Shadows Photography Art Centre and Chambers Fine Art.

In late December, 1984, Ai attended a poetry gathering at St. Mark’s Church where he met Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg, who was acquainted with Ai’s father, the esteemed Chinese poet Ai Qing, invited the young artist out for coffee at a nearby Ukrainian diner called Kiev. When Ai mentioned that he didn’t drink coffee, Ginsberg ordered an egg cream for him instead. The two struck up a friendship-mentor relationship, and it became common for Ai to spend his days at Ginsberg’s apartment, listening to him read poetry. 

Ai Weiwei, New York City, (corner of West 3rd Street and Sixth Avenue), June 3, 1989. Photo by Allen Ginsberg. Courtesy of Stanford University Libraries and Allen Ginsberg Estate.

In Ai’s memoir, he notes that Allen Ginsberg always carried his Olympus camera and would quietly capture passing moments throughout the day. Ai adopted this habit of constant photography, carrying his own camera everywhere, photographing daily life in the East Village. Photography became his most frequent activity, as he took pictures of his friends, poetry readings, partygoers at local clubs, homeless individuals living on the street, and even drag queens at Wigstock. He also documented the Tompkins Square Riots in 1988, capturing the intensity of the chaos and violence. Ai sold some of his photos of the riots to newspapers, but he also gave some to the ACLU, which used them as evidence of police brutality in their lawsuits against the NYPD. In 2011, the Asia Society presented an exhibition of 227 photos from Ai’s time in New York.

Washington Square Park Protest, 1988. Photo by Ai Weiwei. Courtesy of Three Shadows Photography Art Centre and Chambers Fine Art.

In 1993, Ai Weiwei returned to China after learning that his father was sick. While Weiwei’s photography was a defining feature of his time in New York, his exposure to the works of Marcel Duchamp, Jasper Johns, and Andy Warhol had a significant impact on his artistic development. He was deeply inspired by their use of everyday objects and began experimenting with conceptual art. Duchamp’s readymades in particular left a lasting impression on him. This influence can be seen in Ai’s most famous work, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995), which incorporates a “cultural readymade”. This provocative piece involved Ai dropping and destroying a 2,000-year-old urn, a symbol of cultural heritage, to question the value and authenticity of traditional objects. This work exemplifies Ai’s willingness to challenge conventional ideas of art and culture, and he continued to do so upon returning to China. 

Ai Weiwei, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995. Courtesy Ai Weiwei Studio.

Ai Weiwei’s time in the East Village had a significant and lasting impact on him as an artist. Next week, we’ll delve deeper into this impact by exploring Ai’s participation in an avant-garde artist collective, nicknamed Beijing East Village. 

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