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Throwing a lens on Chinese activist Ai Weiwei's New York days

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art Photo Credit: Johansen Krause

Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei is one of the luminaries of the international art community.

His long list of high-profile installations include the “Bird’s Nest” stadium for the Beijing Olympics; “Sunflower Seeds,” which took over the Turbine Hall at London’s Tate Modern in 2010; and “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads,” currently on view at Central Park’s Grand Army Plaza.

His open criticism of the Chinese government may have been a contributing factor in his arrest earlier this spring, but that outspokenness has made him a hero to those who see him as a catalyst of social progress.

Before he was an international figure, Ai was one of a young community of expat artists living on the Lower East Side. Asia Society brings Ai’s early career to light with “Ai Weiwei: New York Photographs 1983-1993.”

The show features 227 black-and-white photos taken by Ai, documenting his friends at work and at play in a city going through a rapid period of change. His subjects span from the chaos backstage at the Met before a performance to a Tawana Brawley protest with Al Sharpton.

Even at 24, Ai’s eye was well developed; his most mundane scenes — a subway ride, his small apartment — sparkle with personality. Taken as a whole, the exhibit provides a lively portrait of what it was like to be young and artistic in the city during the 1980s.

The photographs are displayed in two continuous horizontal rows that span two galleries, each frame nestled right up to the next one. It’s a crowding that’s evocative of the bustle of the city streets. The only misstep is the overhead lighting, which creates a glare that sometimes obscures the photos. But otherwise, “New York Photographs” is an exciting look at a man and a city before they became what they are today.

Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei is one of the luminaries of the international art community.

His long list of high-profile installations include the “Bird’s Nest” stadium for the Beijing Olympics; “Sunflower Seeds,” which took over the Turbine Hall at London’s Tate Modern in 2010; and “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads,” currently on view at Central Park’s Grand Army Plaza.

His open criticism of the Chinese government may have been a contributing factor in his arrest earlier this spring, but that outspokenness has made him a hero to those who see him as a catalyst of social progress.

Before he was an international figure, Ai was one of a young community of expat artists living on the Lower East Side. Asia Society brings Ai’s early career to light with “Ai Weiwei: New York Photographs 1983-1993.”

The show features 227 black-and-white photos taken by Ai, documenting his friends at work and at play in a city going through a rapid period of change. His subjects span from the chaos backstage at the Met before a performance to a Tawana Brawley protest with Al Sharpton.

Even at 24, Ai’s eye was well developed; his most mundane scenes — a subway ride, his small apartment — sparkle with personality. Taken as a whole, the exhibit provides a lively portrait of what it was like to be young and artistic in the city during the 1980s.

The photographs are displayed in two continuous horizontal rows that span two galleries, each frame nestled right up to the next one. It’s a crowding that’s evocative of the bustle of the city streets. The only misstep is the overhead lighting, which creates a glare that sometimes obscures the photos. But otherwise, “New York Photographs” is an exciting look at a man and a city before they became what they are today.

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