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Ai Weiwei and The Two East Villages: Part Two

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 explored Ai Weiwei’s formative years in New York, discussing his friendship with Allen Ginsberg and his first forays into photography. In the second part, we’ll shift our focus to Ai’s career after leaving New York and his involvement with a group of artists known as Beijing East Village, who were at the forefront of contemporary Chinese art.

In 1993, Ai Weiwei returned to China after a decade in the United States upon learning that his father had fallen ill. It was perhaps a good time for him to move on, as his first solo show didn’t jump start his career and Ai was beginning to feel bored, frustrated, and left out of the larger cultural conversation, living in New York.

Ai Weiwei. Photograph by RongRong.

Upon returning to China, Ai Weiwei discovered that the country had undergone significant changes since he had left, but he was disappointed to see that there had been minimal progress on the political front despite the economic reforms implemented in the early 1980s. To support himself, Ai became an antiques dealer, selling small sculptures, jade, and beads while reestablishing himself as a conceptual artist in China. He and his friend, fellow artist Xu Bing, planned to start an art publication called Black Cover Book, which aimed to “provide an opportunity for Chinese modern artists to publish, explain, and exchange their experimental art.” The publication was to include sections to showcase writings and works by young Chinese artists, reports on international art news, and translations of essays on Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, and Jeff Koons.

The Black Cover Book was created in response to the societal changes in Beijing after the Tiananmen Square massacre. Young Chinese artists felt disillusioned by the lack of democratic progress following the political and cultural reforms of the 1980s. They began to distance themselves from traditional art academies that prioritized social realism over experimental forms of art. During this period, Ai Weiwei became associated with an artists’ collective known as Beijing East Village, which was likely named by Ai himself, who had just returned from New York.

“1994 No. 1,” 1994. Photograph by RongRong.

Beijing East Village was a collective of young experimental artists who settled in an impoverished village for migrant workers on the outskirts of Beijing. The name, East Village, was inspired by the artistic experimentation of Manhattan’s East Village and used to differentiate the collective from the more traditional artist hubs on the west side of Beijing. The ragtag group of young artists explored new forms of artistic expression and pushed the boundaries of what was considered acceptable in China’s conservative society. The work of the Beijing East Village artists emphasized collective action and provocation through the use of performance art, an ephemeral medium and relatively safe way of expressing dissent against the Chinese government. 

“1994 No. 95,” 1994. Photograph by RongRong.

One of the most famous performances by Beijing East Village was “12 Square Meters” by Zhang Huan. In this piece, Zhang covered himself in honey and fish sauce and sat for hours in a public latrine while flies covered his body. The artwork was created as a tribute to Ai Weiwei’s father, a poet who was exiled to rural China by the Communist Party and forced to clean toilets during the Cultural Revolution. Ai Weiwei played a significant role as a mentor to the young artists of Beijing East Village, helping them to develop their artistic style and network with other artists. However, it can be argued that the most important figure in the group was the photographer RongRong, who documented and preserved the challenging performances created by the other artists. His photographs not only helped to solidify the legacy of the Beijing East Village movement but also played an important role in bringing their work to a wider audience outside of China. 

“1994 No. 2.3” (Zhang Huan, “12 Square Meters”), 1994. Photograph by RongRong.

In 1994, after the Beijing East Village was disbanded, Ai Weiwei published Black Cover Book featuring works from the collective. Many artists who were part of the collective went on to become influential contemporary artists. In the early 2000s, RongRong revisited the site and published a photo book about his time there. He later founded the Three Shadows Photography Art Centre, an art center and archive housed in a building designed by Ai Weiwei.

Ai Weiwei’s experience with government suppression did not end with the dissolution of the Beijing East Village collective. In 2011, he was arrested and detained for 81 days without formal charges by the Chinese government, leading to an international outcry and calls for his release. After his release, he was placed under house arrest and had his passport confiscated, limiting his ability to travel and continue his work as an artist and activist. He eventually left China in 2015 and established his home base in Portugal.

Zhang Huan, To Raise the Water Level in a Fish Pond, Beijing 1997. Performance

Ai Weiwei’s experiences in both the East Village of New York and Beijing helped shape his identity as a conceptual artist and activist. Despite government suppression and the short-lived nature of the Beijing East Village collective, Ai Weiwei and his fellow artists continued to push the boundaries of artistic expression and challenge societal norms. Through their work, they not only solidified their own legacy but also inspired future generations of contemporary artists.

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