At the end of 2003, as Editor-in-Chief of Art AsiaPacific magazine, I wrote of our cover artist for Spring 2004, Ai Weiwei, “well known in Asia, better known in Europe, and barely seen in New York.” Times sure have changed. Today Ai is known the world over as an artist and cultural activist of the highest order. While that article helped serve as one of several to introduce the artist to new audiences, Ai, born in 1957, has been making art since the mid-1970s. And he has been provoking authority ever since as a member of the Stars group, a collective of avant-garde artists based in Beijing in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Known for using ancient pieces of art as readymades to be pierced, altered, distorted, and sometimes destroyed in the name of “making it new,” Ai is a conceptual artist who continuously probes history, using his art as a platform for the discussion of ideas. In 2000, during the Shanghai Biennial, he presented a solo show outside the official exhibition under the title Fuck Off. His work then and now reminds me of other tricksterish artists such as many of the European surrealists, including his hero Marcel Duchamp, or Andy Warhol, and his near contemporaries Jimmie Durham, Bruce Nauman, and David Hammons, born a generation earlier.
Referencing a work of art from the eighteenth century that was made by Chinese with Europeans and subsequently destroyed by Europeans in the Second Opium War in 1860, Ai’s Zodiac, made in China but presented in the Americas and Europe, has many layers of meaning. As an encyclopedic museum where contemporary artists often present works that probe the past and reflect on long histories, where our collection spans thousands of years and all the regions of the globe, we knew Ai’s work would fit right in.
Here at LACMA we thought Ai’s work would have a real resonance from the moment we saw the proposal for his first public sculpture, Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads, which began touring last fall in São Paulo and now has been seen in New York and London prior to this week’s opening in Los Angeles. His knack for creating powerful images had a link to the group of iconoclasts currently occupying half of the third floor of the Broad Contemporary Art Museum: Andy Warhol, John Baldessari and Jeff Koons. In addition to those artists, large-scale works of art going up on campus this fall include a new work by Michael Heizer, Levitated Mass, which along with Chris Burden’s Urban Light and Ai’s Zodiac Heads put a focus on public art and its presence here on our campus.
Franklin Sirmans, Terri and Michael Smooke Curator and Department Head, Contemporary Art