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My Visit to the Ai Weiwei: Bare Life Exhibition

I had heard of Ai Weiwei. I knew he was a Chinese contemporary artist and activist, and that controversy has followed him much of his life. But, I had never had an opportunity to see any of his artistic pursuits. So, when I realized that a major exhibition of his art was to be on display, just walking distance from my home, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see Ai Weiwei as an artist.

Washington University in St. Louis, for the opening of their newly expanded and renovated Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum is presenting, Ai Weiwei: Bare Life, from September 28, 2019 until January 5, 2020. And I had the opportunity to visit the exhibition during the opening weekend.

With very little background or understanding of Ai Weiwei as an artist, I wasn’t sure what to expect. If you read a description of Ai Weiwei as an artist and you will find words like political dissident, government critic and creative dissent.[1] Ai was placed under house arrest in 2010. He was held in secret detention for eighty-one days in 2011; his passport withheld until 2015.

So, when I entered the exhibition I was anticipating that the presentations would be harsh and strident and in keeping with those of a “dissident.” But, I was surprised. The brochure opened with these comments:

The exiled Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei (b.1957) creates sculptures, installations, photographs, and films that address complex and sensitive themes of sociopolitical urgency, raising questions about our shared humanity. These compassionate, stunningly beautiful, and often monumental artworks draw on and intermix historical and contemporary Eastern and Western artistic languages (p.1).*

I am certainly not an art critic. (And, I did not look too closely at the small exhibits or the videos that were playing all around the exhibition. Some 36 items were on display.) But, of what I did see, the bigger more dominating exhibits, I think, the brochure’s introduction, accurately describes what I found. Many of the pieces are “stunningly beautiful.” The intermix of the historical and contemporary was everywhere evident.

Forever Bicycles

By far the most striking exhibit had to be Forever Bicycles. It consists of some 720 bicycles assembled and connected together to form an immense arch, one large enough that visitors could pass through. Apparently, the title of this display picks up on the Forever (Yongjiu) bicycle brand.


The height of each of the rows making up this wallpaper display is nearly a foot high (11 13/16” or 30cm). The wall is very close to 25 feet high (7.62m). It naturally dominates this end of the room. We are told that this display helps us visualize “the plight of refugees worldwide.” The artist “combines drawn depictions of the current refugee crisis with scenes of human movement since antiquity” (p.6).

The display in the foreground is titled “Tear Gas Canisters” (p.8), which consists of 16 painted tear gas canisters.


The entire exhibition is displayed in two rooms. The first room, displaying the items mentioned above, were in the “Bare Life” section, which is also the name of the whole exhibition. The second room contains the section called “Rupture.” And, as the bicycles dominate the first room, the “Through” arrangement commands the attention in the second. We are told that this piece consists of “wooden tables and beams and pillars from dismantled temples from the Qing-dynasty (1644-1911),” (p.17). Once again, visitors can walk under and through the piece.

Souvenir from Shanghai

Ai assembled this piece from materials that were salvaged from his demolished studio in Shanghai, which was ordered to be knocked down by the government. He then assembled these materials into a solid block, and into which he embedded an ornate bed frame, purportedly from the Qing-dynasty (pp.20-21),

Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn

A truly fascinating section of the exhibit consists of three larger than life pictures of Ai dropping and smashing a Han dynasty urn. These three pictures took up an entire wall of the room. All of this is fascinating enough. But, upon closer examination (which we are not going to be able to do here), we see that these three pictures are constructed from thousands of small Lego pieces (p.27).

Coca-Cola Vase

This piece I personally found most intriguing. It is a vase from the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE), with the trademark Coca-Cola script painted along its outer surface. I found it to be a fascinating combination of ancient and contemporary elements (p.31).

I have barely mentioned all that there is to see in the exhibition. Neither have I even attempted to express anything of what these works convey in terms of feelings or impressions (for some of that, see here). But I can say that it is worth the effort to see the exhibit if at all possible. After all, Ai Weiwei is arguably one of the most well-known contemporary artist from China in the world.

But, there are other talented artists from China, even if not so well known, many of them Christians. And, we at ChinaSource, in our upcoming winter issue of the ChinaSource Quarterly (CSQ), are planning to introduce you to some Christians in the arts in China, who are seeking to use their talents to convey in creative ways the love of Jesus Christ. Watch for the winter issue of CSQ coming out in December. 


  1. ^ All comments, reference to the artist and his works, which were on display, come from the brochure distributed at the exhibition, Ai Weiwei: Bare Life, September 28, 2019—January 5, 2020. Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum. Some of that brochure is duplicated here.
All images courtesy of the author. 

Glenn Herr

Glenn, and his wife Narci, came to ChinaSource after 30 years of experience living and serving in Hong Kong and China. They were first involved in working with the church in Hong Kong and for the last 20 years they served workers living in China. During that time Glenn traveled extensively throughout …View Full Bio

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