Field Trips: Ai Weiwei Bare Life

One of the best reasons for having the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum on campus is close-in field trips, this is especially exciting when the museum is re-opened in Fall 2019 with an exhibition of work by internationally renowned artist and human rights activist Ai Weiwei.

Our class meets in the new lobby and get our check-in stickers. We are met by the wonderful Rochelle Caruthers, who is the university academic programs coordinator at the museum. Rochelle leads tours and coordinates the study room where teachers can arrange to have specific pieces from the collection pulled. I have been on the Ai Weiwei tour twice now and even though I know the answers to all her trivia questions. Still every tour has been unique and equally engaging.

She starts out by leading us into the atrium where the Bombs piece hangs. We learn about how the ceiling of the museum has always been curved but most visitors didn’t notice until these menacing weapons of war were wallpapered down the side.

Next we walk into Ebsworth gallery in which the “Bare Life” portion of the gallery resides. Rochelle walks us under Forever Bicycles and asks us to tell her what we see. 720 bicycles stacked neatly and curved into an arch that almost reach the ceiling. Then she asks what we don’t see: seats, tires, handlebars, chains and pedals. These bicycles seem to have the structure and body of a normal bicycle but they have been stripped of all parts that give a human the agency and safety to use them. In case you are wondering, Ai has used this piece in other spaces and he adjusts the number of bicycles to fill the space.

We segue into a discussion about the rest of the gallery, which has been divided between objects of activism and objects of art inspired by the Sichuan earthquake that occurred in 2008 and the refugee crisis that followed. On the side of the refugee crisis, we walk around the black and white floor-to-ceiling wallpaper depicting the story of refugees around the world inspired by the Odyssey. It spans themes from ancient to modern times including the visual languages of class Greek, Egyptian, Japanese artwork. On the side of the earthquake pieces, objets d’art honor and display the lost lives and voices of children who died in their schools during the earthquake, due in large part to misuse of public funds and construction materials. Steel rebar culled from the site of the collapsed buildings is original or replicated or cast in marble. Framed letters of correspondence between the Chinese government line the entirety of the wall adjacent to the documentaries. Five frames are left empty. We speculate if that is because the issue he was inquiring about was left unresolved.

Finally we move into the rupture room, Ai and his team have created a structure in this room out of historically valuable tables and beams of ancient temples. Patrons walk under and around these points of connection created by a traditional joinery technique. This means that the whole piece is held together just by connections made between the wood with no additional nails or steel. Rochelle lets us wander this room because it is a tighter fit and then come back to ask questions. We ask about the Lego triptych of Ai dropping the Han Dynasty urn, the monks feet, and whether or not the wallpaper has any sort of order. Instead of answering questions out right, she provides more information and leads us in a discussion with each other.

This experience satisfies what I have always loved about the museum field trips I see and discuss with class-mates the reality of what the professor taught in class. It lends itself to more fruitful discoveries and further develops a closer class culture through mutual exploration and curiosity. Afterwards we are dismissed. Yet, we linger, chatting a while before we disperse. We chat about how exciting this exhibition is, how great the conversations were, and how wonderful it would be to get the group together for a class dinner outing.