Ai Weiwei: Bare Life

Ai Weiwei: Bare Life

Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University in St. Louis

View of Ai Weiwei: Bare Life, Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, 2019. Photo: Joshua White /

October 4, 2019
Ai Weiwei: Bare Life
September 28, 2019–January 5, 2020
Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University in St. Louis
1 Brookings Dr
St. Louis, MO 63130
Hours: Wednesday–Monday 11am–5pm

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The Chinese conceptual artist, activist, and exile Ai Weiwei creates artworks—among them sculptures, installations, photographs, and films—that address complex and sensitive themes of sociopolitical urgency, raising questions about our shared humanity. On view at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum in St. Louis, Ai Weiwei: Bare Life presents the work of this important artist in a thematic framework that offers new ways of understanding his practice and its relation to philosophical deliberations on human rights, global citizenship, and modernity’s break from tradition.

Ai Weiwei: Bare Life brings together approximately three dozen artworks created over the last two decades. Some of Ai’s most iconic works, including Illumination (2009), Coca-Cola Vase (2015), and Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (2015), are placed in dialogue with new large-scale and site-specific installations that anchor the three spaces of the exhibition.

The massive wooden sculpture Through (2007–8), which has not previously been exhibited in the US, conjoins centuries-old Chinese tables, pillars, and beams using traditional techniques without glue or nails. Forever Bicycles (2012), a site-specific installation, forms a spectacular geometric arch out of 720 bicycles.

The monumental wallpaper installations Provisional Landscapes (2002–8), Finger (2015), and Odyssey (2016) are joined by Bombs (2019), a new work on view for the first time. This two-story floor-to-ceiling wallpaper presents a chilling chronology of more than a century of industrial warfare.

The exhibition is organized into two sections. The first, “Bare Life,” takes its title, as does the exhibition itself, from the writings of the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben (b. 1942) who has long examined the notion of bare life, of “sacred” or “exceptional” life. In this state of exception for humanity, the individual is excluded from having rights yet is subjected to power and control. Ai’s work in this section gives visibility to human rights violations worldwide, both in relation to the mounting crisis of more than seventy million people displaced across the globe, and in relation to China, especially the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

The second section, “Rupture,” references the influential writings of Hannah Arendt (1906–1975), the German Jewish philosopher who explored the crisis of meaning after the break from tradition during modernization. Consequentially she characterized the present as a gap between past and future and famously stated that “our heritage was left to us by no testament.” Artworks in this section represent Ai’s engagement with China’s cultural legacy, from the radical erasures of the Cultural Revolution (1966–76) to the rapid globalization and economic reforms that have marked the beginning of the twenty-first century.

The exhibition is curated by Sabine Eckmann, William T. Kemper Director and Chief Curator, in collaboration with Ai Weiwei, who also designed the installation. In conjunction with the exhibition, the Kemper Art Museum will present a wide range of public programs in collaboration with Washington University faculty, visiting scholars, artists, and local community partners.

The accompanying catalog presents Ai’s work in dialogue with theoretical texts by the philosophers Giorgio Agamben and Hannah Arendt alongside interpretive essays that illuminate the artist’s work on the universal human condition, his engagement with historical Chinese artifacts, and his critical consideration of the effects of globalization. The book includes a new essay on human rights by Ai and an interview with the artist. With more than 150 images, including installation photographs of the exhibition, the publication is designed by Lorraine Wild, Green Dragon Office, Los Angeles, and will be distributed by the University of Chicago Press.

Exhibition support
Leadership support for exhibitions is provided by the William T. Kemper Foundation. Support for Ai Weiwei: Bare Life is provided by the Konzen family and PGAV Destinations; Bunny and Charles Burson; and the Missouri Arts Council, a state agency. Additional support is provided by Emily and Teddy Greenspan, Elissa and Paul Cahn, Nancy and Ken Kranzberg, the David Woods Kemper Memorial Foundation, the Hortense Lewin Art Fund, and members of the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum.

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Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University in St. Louis
October 4, 2019

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