Ai Weiwei’s Defiant Images, Berenice Abbott’s New York: Review

"Study of Perspective: The Eiffel Tower" (1995-2003) by Ai Weiwei. The photo is at the Jeu de Paume through April 29. Source: Jeu de Paume via Bloomberg

It’s a classic case of unintended consequences. By harassing and arresting Ai Weiwei, the Chinese authorities have catapulted him to international stardom.

In June 2011, the conceptual artist, architect and photographer was released on bail after being detained for 81 days on charges of tax evasion and spreading pornography on the Internet. He is still prohibited from leaving Beijing without permission.

Otherwise, he certainly would have attended the opening of “Entrelacs,” or Interlacing, the photo show at the Jeu de Paume, his first big exhibition in Paris.

Ai, who was born in 1957, is no photographer in the conventional sense. He cares less about the medium than about the message. His pictures, often taken with a cellphone and published on the Web, are technically and aesthetically unremarkable.

What matters to him is their documentary value.

The show starts with the decade (1983-93) Ai spent in New York. He recorded his life on the Lower East Side, his friends and neighbors, the decay, the homeless, and clashes between demonstrators and the police.

Returning to China, he was appalled by the destruction of old neighborhoods and villages to make room for soulless high-rise buildings. His series “Provisional Landscapes” is a sad comment on this perverse sense of progress.

Fingering Tiananmen

Ai’s answer to the crushing of the pro-democracy protests in 1989 was “Study of Perspective,” a satirical photo series giving Tiananmen Square, where the massacre took place, “the finger.” Since then, he has extended the series to other locations throughout the world.

In 2007, Ai was invited by Documenta, the contemporary art exhibition held every five years in Kassel, Germany. He arrived with a “living installation” of 1,001 compatriots for whom he organized tickets, visas and lodging in an abandoned factory.

“Fairytale Portraits,” the title of the series, is an apt description of the wonderment his guests -- many from the provinces and modest backgrounds -- must have experienced in a foreign country.

Serious trouble with the authorities started after the 2008 earthquake in the province of Sichuan. Among the more than 60,000 dead were many children who perished in their shoddily built schools. When Ai later tried to get an official list of the casualties he was beaten up by the police.

To Western eyes, his photographs of the disaster area look harmless. Yet the Chinese authorities suspected, not without reason, that he was criticizing their corruption and negligence.

This is an exhibition that forces you to read between the lines -- a practice that is prevalent under totalitarian regimes, less so in democracies.

Cool Eye

On the ground floor of the Jeu de Paume, you’ll find the documentary portrait of another city -- New York in the 1930s. The photographer is Berenice Abbott (1898-1991), who was funded by the Works Progress Administration, the New Deal agency.

In the 1920s, Ohio-born Abbott lived in Paris where she discovered the work of Eugene Atget, who had systematically photographed the streets and monuments of the French capital. In 1928, she bought a large part of Atget’s estate. His cool and detached approach is also typical of her New York series.

In Paris, Abbott was an assistant to Man Ray and specialized in portraits. The first section of the show is a parade of literary and artistic celebrities.

She loved to portray her sitters in unconventional outfits and poses -- women with masculine haircuts and clothes, Jean Cocteau with a gun directed at the photographer.

The most fascinating part of the show is Abbott’s scientific work. In 1957, after the Soviets had launched the Sputnik satellite, she was hired by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as an illustrator of new textbooks meant to popularize science in U.S. schools.

Many of her photographs have an abstract beauty that wouldn’t have displeased her avant-garde friends in Paris.

The two shows, which are supported by Neuflize Vie and the Terra Foundation, run through April 29. Information:

(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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