Ai Weiwei Credit: courtesy Ai Weiwei Studios

f the art gig ever stalls, Chinese dissident and global activist Ai Weiwei
could give stand-up comedy a try. The acerbic humor that’s a primary driver
of much of his art was on display during an appearance at the Auditorium
Theatre last week.

Question from the audience: Did the Chinese government help elect Trump?

Ai Weiwei: I don’t think the Chinese government would be so stupid.

Question: What about Russia?

Ai Weiwei: They use chemicals. I worry about that every time I have a cup
of tea. The Chinese just put you in a secret place.

Starting this week, Chicago will get a firsthand look at an already famous
project by Ai Weiwei, himself the victim of a notorious detainment in a
secret place. In 2011 he was arrested by Chinese authorities, apparently
fed up with his anti-totalitarian blogging, which had attracted worldwide
attention. He was released after 81 days, but his passport was confiscated
for another four years—in effect, keeping him a prisoner in China.

The project is “Trace,” a set of large portraits of activists and prisoners
of conscience executed in Lego bricks. It was commissioned as part of a
larger solo show mounted at the former federal prison at Alcatraz in 2014
and was shown at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., last year. The
original version—which used nearly one million Legos and was viewed by
roughly the same number of visitors—contained images of 176 activists,
identified by Amnesty International and other human rights organizations.
The Chicago version will consist of 113 portraits and digital kiosks that
will tell the subjects’ stories.

As Ai Weiwei explained during a conversation with Hirshhorn director
Melissa Chiu at the Auditorium Theatre event, the portraits will be
installed on the floor, because at Alcatraz, they couldn’t put any holes in
the walls.

Arms folded over an untucked shirt and rotund midsection, the wryly
unflappable, aphoristic 60-year-old, who’s also been promoting Human Flow, his recent documentary film about dispossessed
migrants and says he’s done “more than 350 interviews since last October,”
recapped his trajectory.

Why did he become an artist? “To escape being a farmer.” Why this expanded,
socially active practice? (His media, besides sculpture, film, and
photography, include Twitter and Instagram.) “To have a moment like this.”

On a screen above him, images flashed of two pictures in his “Study in
Perspective” series of selfies. In the first, he’s giving the finger to
Tiananmen Square; in the second, to the White House.

Ai Weiwei’s father was a well-known poet who got in the crosshairs of Mao’s
Anti-Rightist Campaign in the 1950s and was banished first to a remote area
in northeast China and then to the even more distant northwest province of
Xinjiang. Ai Weiwei grew up without electricity and recalled last week that
when he came to New York in the 1980s, the sight of the city lit up at
night was near-religious experience for him. Still, he said, New York—where
he studied at Parsons School of Design under Sean Scully (“an Irishman,
drinking whiskey all the time”); became a freelance photographer (waiting
at the newsstand at 3 AM to see his photo credit in the New York Times); and lived as an undocumented immigrant (with
roommates that included filmmaker Chen Kaige and composer and conductor Tan
Dun)—was very lonely, “so desperate,” and “the least romantic city on

He returned to China, where he became not only the country’s most famous
artist and a codesigner of Beijing’s iconic “bird’s nest” Olympic Stadium
but a prolific and provocative online presence who, for example, started a
“citizen’s investigation” when the government failed to reveal how many
children were killed in a devastating 2008 earthquake.

When the government installed 25 surveillance cameras around his home and
studio, Ai Weiwei responded by setting up his own cameras and
live-streaming all of his activities, 24/7. “A million people watched,” he
said. “The police called and said, ‘Please shut it down.’ I said, ‘I made
this for you.'”

He’s been living in Berlin since his passport was returned in 2015.

The idea of rendering the portraits for “Trace” in Lego bricks occurred to
him as a way to compensate for the uneven technical quality of the
activists’ photographs he was able to collect. In the Chicago exhibit,
underwritten by the Alphawood Foundation, the portraits will be spread
through three floors of what should prove to be a very interesting new
gallery that’s being carved out of a vintage Lincoln Park residential
building at 659 W. Wrightwood.

Ai Weiwei told the appreciative Auditorium audience that he prefers
nontraditional exhibit venues, like prisons, because “you can put almost
anything there and call it art.” He said his own studio walls are empty; if
visitors ask where the art is, he tells them, “I am the artwork.” As for
the plight of undocumented immigrants today, he advises them go with it:
“To be deported can be a fashionable thing now.”

Question: What about young artists who want to challenge their government?

Ai Weiwei: If it’s a choice, don’t do it.   v