Ai Weiwei’s New York Hobos Meet Heroic Midwife in Photo Shows

Allen Ginsberg and Ai Weiwei
Allen Ginsberg and Ai Weiwei in a Lower East Side restaurant in New York. The photograph is one of more than 200 at the Martin Gropius Bau in Berlin dating from Ai's 10 years in New York. Source: Three Shadows Photography Art Center/Martin Gropius Bau via Bloomberg

The Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei, ranked the most influential person in the art world this month by Art Review magazine, once cleaned houses and babysat for families in New York.

He lived there for 10 years from 1983 to 1993 -- a chapter that may now seem to him to be his carefree youth. Photographs he took during that time are on show at the Martin Gropius Bau in Berlin, where a banner demanding “Freedom for Ai Weiwei” has hung since his arrest in Beijing on April 3.

Released from imprisonment more than 80 days later, Ai is still not allowed to travel or give interviews -- or take up his guest professorship at Berlin’s Universitaet der Kuenste (University of the Arts.) In response to the Art Review rankings, Ai told the BBC World Service with characteristically laconic humor that he “doesn’t feel powerful at all.”

These snapshots show that Ai has a knack for being where the action is and an activist’s instinct to challenge authority and document its abuse. His photos of protests and riots in Tompkins Square Park were used by courts to convict police officers of brutality and were published by newspapers.

Others show the homeless, transvestites, street musicians and the Reverend Al Sharpton, as well as Bill Clinton on a campaign tour.

A premonition of the conceptual artworks to come emerges in a 1983 photograph of Marcel Duchamp’s profile, fashioned out of a coat-hanger and filled with the husks of sunflower seeds. Ai’s giant 2010 installation for the Tate Modern in London was composed of millions of hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds.

Chinese Visitors

Living in a tiny East Village apartment, Ai became host to a parade of Chinese artists including the filmmaker Chen Kaige and the composer Tan Dun. He was friends with Allen Ginsberg, whose bald, bearded, bespectacled image recurs through the show.

He snapped his young Chinese visitors relaxing in his apartment, a Broadway delicatessen and the burly, mustachioed employees of a hardware store. These are the pictures of a curious young man, open and alert to the quirks of a new culture and a little alienated by aspects of it.

Ai, who is now 54, took more than 10,000 photos in those 10 years, of which more than 200 are on show. The exhibition, which he helped to curate, was previously shown in New York.

“Ai Weiwei in New York: Photographs 1983-1993” is on show through March 18, 2012, at the Martin Gropius Bau. For more information, go to

Smith’s Steelworkers

Where Ai took thousands of random photos to document his life and environment, the American photographer W. Eugene Smith valued obsessive attention to detail over spontaneity.

The pioneer of the photographic essay and a regular contributor to “Life” magazine, he had no qualms about taking as long as a day to set up the perfect shot.

To him, truth and authenticity did not have to be the same thing: Objectivity, he said, should be banished from the journalistic vocabulary and replaced with passion.

He also hated editors. Yet when he tried to work without them, things got out of hand. His project for the photo agency Magnum on Pittsburgh’s steelworkers took years, pushed him to his financial limits, and ended up comprising 13,000 photos instead of the 100 assigned.

His photo essays, on show one floor above Ai’s New York pictures at the Martin Gropius Bau, are more political poetry than reportage. The stark images of “Spanish Village,” published in 1951, speak volumes about the poverty and primitiveness of rural life in Franco’s Spain. Yet a woman spinning, for instance, is depicted with the dignity of a Renaissance portrait.

Equally moving is Smith’s essay about the black midwife Maude Callen, a woman he said was the most extraordinary person he had met. He followed the compassionate Callen in an era of fraught race relations as she waded through swamps to assist births and care for children, regardless of color.

“W. Eugene Smith Photographs -- A Retrospective” is showing at the Martin Gropius Bau through Nov. 27. For more information, go to

(Catherine Hickley writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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