Directions In Listening By Miles Davis

A ShortList Of Recommended Miles Davis Albums

Timeless. Miles on an Apple “Think Different” Billboard, I shot in June, 1998 on West 23rd Street.

This is an Addendum to my “Riffing On Miles Davis” Post in response to a note I’ve gotten asking what specific recordings I’d recommend listeners check out to hear Miles, and/or get a fuller appreciation of his accomplishment over the 40 years he recorded albums under his own name1. Personally? Miles Davis was my biggest musical influence, as he was for many of the musicians I worked with or admired. He was a living legend to us, akin to what Picasso was to visual Artists during his lifetime, and yes, there are quite a few interesting similarities between Miles & Picasso, but that’s a different piece. Ok. So, here’s my “ShortList” of essential Miles’ albums- suggestions for both a listener new to Miles Davis to start with, and for where to go from there. To clarify- Miles earliest records are almost 65 years old now. Older albums get re-released, if they continue to be worth hearing!, all the time, often with different names. Almost all of Miles’ are still available. I’m using their original album titles here. Disclaimer- This is a “ShortList”- a place to start. If I’ve left your favorite out? I hear you. I’m leaving out some of mine, too. I think we can all agree that there is A LOT of great music in his Discography. Dip your toe in and see where the River Miles leads you. I hope we can all agree on that.

First, “Kind of Blue”- Yeah. What else would be first? It seems to be every critic’s #1 choice as the first Jazz album you should have. Ok, I get that. For me, it’s much more. It’s a record I’ve lived with for most of the 56 years since it’s been released. I’ve gone through phases with it. First, there was the “tunes” phase- listening to, and loving the songs as songs, while marveling that they were basically composed at the recording sessions, or as legend has it, by Miles in a taxi on the way to them.

The Official Soundtrack of The Night. I go to The Met to see Art. I listen to this to hear it. I wore out the Lp, then bought this, the first CD release. There's now a 50th Anniversary 2 Disc edition with outtakes- Get that.

The Official Soundtrack of The Night. I go to The Met to see Art. I listen to this to hear it. I wore out the Lp, then bought this, the first CD release. There’s now a 50th Anniversary 2 Disc edition with outtakes- Get that.

Then, there was the Miles-“So-What”-Solo-Phase, which most musicians probably go through. I’m talking about Miles’ solo on “So What,” the first solo on the record. First, you marvel at it’s utter perfection. Finally, you write it out, study it, and learn to play it on whatever instrument you play. Then? You realize that was easy enough, but it doesn’t come within miles (sorry) of what he did. You start to wonder why not, and you then start to become a “Musician.” Further, jazz can be taught, but Jazz can’t be taught, I believe. The intellect, the sensibility, the taste, the creativity, the feeling, and the unique essence that makes a Master Musician are either there, or they’re not. Even if they are all there? You’re still not Miles. Only Miles was Miles. If you want to know why he was so great, or hear music that is Art, in my opinion, listen to this.

In the 1990’s I was fortunate enough to know, and once work with, the Artist Mark Ledford. He passed way far too soon and is probably best known for having been in Pat Metheny’s Band, and having a solo CD out on Verve called “Miles 2 Go.” He also played with the late, great Joe Zawinul, the co-founder of the legendary band, “Weather Report.” He, also, composed “In A Silent Way,” now a Miles Davis classic, and performed on some of Miles’ classic albums. Mark introduced me to Mr. Zawinul, one evening at the Blue Note, NYC. I was a very long time lover of Joe Zawinul’s music going back before his days with “Weather Report,” to those days he spent with Miles. Yet, when I finally got to meet him, all I could ask him was, “Have you heard Led play trumpet?” I wondered if he felt about Mark’s playing the way I did. Mark Ledford uncannily sounded like Miles on trumpet. Believe me, I don’t say that lightly. The highway of Jazz is littered with “Miles-wannabees,” who never were. Like me, Mark Ledford had grown up with Miles, and unlike me, he played trumpet. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, but when I first heard him play, I was like “WOW. This is uncanny.” I was lucky enough to have him play trumpet on one of my records.

Anyway, the point is that even Mark Ledford, a brilliant multi-talented musician, who could sound more like Miles than any of the millions of Miles imitators, wasn’t Miles. He would tell you that. Listening to Miles and trying to think where he was going…what would come next…was a game I still play. Then? There was that sound. As I wrote earlier, for me, his sound defines living in NYC as much as any sound I can think of. People in London, Cairo, Tokyo and Moscow probably feel the same way. Well? Sorry, but “Kind of Blue” was recorded here, within walking distance from where I’m writing this, so we’ll take dibs on it. Yet, “Kind of Blue” is as much about Miles’ sound when he plays, as it is about the sound when he didn’t play. It’s a masterpiece of silence, as much as it is of music, of “negative space,” as Artists call it, as I mentioned in my first Miles Post. When you go back and listen to earlier Miles albums you can hear it there, too. But, it’s a featured player here, and something that became integral to listening to Miles henceforth. For me, this silence is what puts Miles’ legendary coolness over the top. No other musician, in any kind of music has ever been as revered for what he played as for what he chose not to play.

Another view of the “Think Different” Billboard, June, 1998. This one shot from under what is now the High Line

Time would go by, and I’d come back to “Kind of Blue”, again. This time for Trane. John Coltrane is a world unto himself. He was as revolutionary a figure as Miles was, in his own way. One of the first “mainstream” jazz musicians to experiment and adopt elements of the avant garde in his work, he was a man who was on a mission. A mission that ended far too soon, when he suddenly passed in 1967, age 40! Look at his discography and you’d think he lived to be 100, almost no one was as prolific a recording Artist as John Coltrane (Thank goodness!) Like Miles, all periods of Trane’s work are important, and his period with Miles, which would end shortly, was certainly up there with any of them. While Miles was creating perfect statements with the utmost economy, John Coltrane was wailing. He often sounds like a man who knows he doesn’t have a lot of time to get it all in. Possessing one of the most formidable techniques in the long & storied history of the Tenor Sax in Jazz, he used every ounce of it, seemingly, all the time. Miles once said, no doubt referring to him, “I had seven tenor players, once.” Yet, in spite of what some critics say, I don’t ever hear him overplaying. Later, his explorations carried him much further afield than we hear him here, and that’s a different story, but on “Kind of Blue,” he is the perfect counterfoil for Miles (as he is one virtually all of his recordings with him.)

So, you can listen to “Kind of Blue” for the music. You can listen to it for Miles. You can listen to it for Trane.

And, you can also listen to it for the great Cannonball Adderley. Or the great Bill Evans, or for the band as a whole (Paul Chambers bass and Jimmy Cobb’s drums complete the band, with Wynton Kelly on piano on one track), a unique combination of master musicians, all at their peak, all together in one room. Thank Buddha there was recording equipment, engineers present, and someone remembered to hit the “Record” button! (I’ve been to sessions where someone actually forgot to.)

After “Kind of Blue,” there are many different ways you can go in exploring Miles’ recorded legacy. For me, I’d go with the music of the group that took acoustic music further than anyone has- before or since- Miles’ Quintet of 1965-67, the so-called “Second Great Quintet.”.

You’re looking at nothing less than what remains the State of The Art in small group Jazz. Available as individual records, or in this Complete Box Set, seen at Barnes & Noble, Union Square, one of the few CD Stores left in NYC this week. I never leave home without it…on my Phone.

To clarify- Miles’ “First Great Quintet” was the working group (i.e. they performed live) he had from 1955-58 that included Tenor Saxophonist John Coltrane. The group that recorded “Kind of Blue” is referred to as his “Sextet.” For me, everything the Second Great Quintet recorded is essential. Miles was joined by Wayne Shorter (Tenor, and later, Soprano Sax), Herbie Hancock (Piano), Ron Carter (Bass) and Tony Williams (Drums)- a group of young, and already accomplished, talents who grew to become masters on their instruments during this experience. One of their albums was titled “E.S.P.,” which perfectly summed up the previously unheard level of group intercommunication they attained as well as anything could. Therefore, the “album” I’m recommending is “The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings Of The Miles Davis Quintet January 1965 To June 1968,” a 6 CD set, pictured above. It’s a compilation of their albums of the period. It would be very very hard for me to pick one album. If you held a gun to my head? “E.S.P.”, then “Nefertiti,” “The Sorceror,””Miles Smiles,” but we are splitting hairs now.

E.S.P. as a single Lp/CD. While the music inside is telepathic, the cover, with then wife Cicely Tyson, makes me wonder, too. See note below about Japanese pressings.

E.S.P. as a single Lp/CD. While the music inside is telepathic, the cover, with then wife Cicely Tyson, makes me wonder, too. See note below about Japanese pressings.

This is music that features Miles at the peak of his powers, in the company of 4 young musicians (Tony Williams was 17 when he joined Miles!) who are becoming Masters, themselves, right in front of our ears. A key point in this evolution occurred when when the band was performing live early on. Miles wondered why the group played differently, more adventurously, behind Wayne’s solos than it did behind his. So he called them out on it and told them to play the same way behind his. In short order the group was matching it’s leader at every turn, and, by the time of their later recordings, even push him. It’s exciting, fresh, exploratory and endlessly vital music, that, in my opinion, redefined what acoustic jazz could be. Those terms are carried on in the superb Wayne Shorter Quartet of 2001 to date, one of the few bands that carries on in the spirit of the GQ2, perhaps at the behest of Miles, himself, who reputedly passed the torch to Wayne the last time they spoke. I digress.

If, like me, you get to the point where you must hear every note the GQ2 played, than by all means check out “The Complete Live At The Plugged Nickel,””Miles In Berlin,” and the “Live In Europe 1967: The Bootleg Series Vol. 1,” (a 2011 release that only scratches the surface of rare live recordings by this band that are avidly traded among collectors. These are not on the “Shortlist,” however. Many of these are in surprisingly good recording quality, having originated from Radio or TV Broadcasts- or both.)

Many Miles fans will part ways with me here, when I make my next selections, and that’s fine. It’s my personal opinion. I think we’d all agree that it’s best to hear as much of Miles’ music as one can and decide for yourself, what speaks to you. There are about 50 studio albums to choose from that Miles recorded, 36 or so live albums, but, as I said, these are augmented by hundreds of live tapes that collectors trade. This list is merely a suggested starting point to help you figure out where you’d like to go, or suggest new roads if you’ve dipped your toe in Miles’ Ocean.


This one changed my life. Oh, and music has never been the same since, too. Perfectly titled. Perfect cover art. Perfectly Revolutionary.

I’d suggest “Bitches Brew” next. As I touched on previously, Miles Running The Voodoo Down. it was a revolution in a career of many innovations. It still sounds ahead of it’s time to me. It has that air of improvisation that “Kind of Blue” has, but in an entirely different way. Wayne, Keyboardists Joe Zawinul, Chick Corea, Larry Young, Guitarist John McLaughlin, Bass Clairnetist(!) Bennie Maupin, Bassist Dave Holland, and Drummers Lenny White, Jack DeJohnette, Billy Cobham and Percussionists Airto and Don Alias, joined Miles in brewing up a concoction that melted the borders not only between rock and jazz but between so many other kinds of music at the same time, it was like the flat earth had suddenly become round. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say it had the equivalent effect of The Beatles going psychedelic 2 years earlier with the release of “Strawberry Fields Forever.” The influence of this album is everywhere I turn today- every time I see a jazz group that includes an electric instrument, there it is, or a group of some other kind of music that has jazz elements (including Prince) and an electric instrument or two.

Miles’ work with Gil Evans is also revolutionary, and much less controversial. Many consider it his most beautiful music. It extends as far back as 1949-50 and is collected on the legendary, and highly recommended, album “The Complete Birth of The Cool,” which is exactly what it was. Miles has been “cool” ever since. For me? He defines it. The shot below is from a radio session done the year before the record. Miles was playing Gil Evans Arrangements that featured unusual instruments for small group jazz, like the tuba and french horn. So, the band became known as “Miles’ Tuba Band.”  About 10 years later, they reconvened to created the masterpieces “Sketches of Spain” and “Porgy and Bess,” (yes, the Gershwin Opera). Add them to your list.

Pre-Birth of the Cool. Miles, NYC in 1948 with Lee Konitz on Alto, and Gerry Mulligan on Baritone Saxes, Left, John Barber on Tuba. From my collection.

Ok, it’s been hard to leave off other albums featuring John Coltrane, so I will wait no longer.


No. He’s not posing here, or in the silhouette. Only Sinatra and Ella can “sing” standards with Miles. (Louis and Billie ain’t bad, either.)

“Milestones” is a classic. Along with Trane, it contains another (like on Kind of Blue) rare appearance by Cannonball Adderley, along with Red Garland (Piano), Paul Chambers (Bass), and Philly Joe Jones (Drums). This band, without Cannonball, comprised Miles “First Great Quintet.” “‘Round About Midnight,” and “Miles Ahead” would be your next stops for the studio work of this group. Two points should be made here- 1) Miles created these records for Columbia Records, who he signed with in 1955. Before that, this group recorded for Prestige. Among the Prestige titles, I love “Workin’” and “Steamin’”, though “Cookin’” and “Relaxin” are right up there as well.


“Workin'” but not “Sweatin'” “It Never Entered My Mind” is on this. One of his greatest performances for my money.

After these, head to the even earlier Blue Note recordings Miles made, that were released as “Young Man With A Horn,” and then “Miles Davis Volume 2 and Volume 3”, from 1952-54. They have been collected in a Blue Note “Complete” CD set.


“Miles Davis Volume 2” on Blue Note. One of their most iconic cover designs.


The back cover of the above proves that Music is the universal language.

Oh. The other point, 2) is that the Miles in that as great as their studio records are, and they are among the greatest ever made by anyone, Miles and Coltrane MUST be heard together live, in my opinion, to get any kind of full appreciation of their chemistry together. As I’ve said, they were the perfect foils- Miles the genius of understatement, the inventor (to my way of thinking) of musical silence, contrasted by John Coltrane, who was at that time working on development of the final stages of what would be called his “sheets of sound” style. What might sound on paper like a musical train wreck (no pun intended), was in reality magic. Art. From there, there are, once again, bootleg recordings around, many of which belie the late 1950’s dates, with more than acceptable sound. The greatest “official” live album is “Jazz At The Plaza,” a somewhat unintended album (the musicians didn’t know they were being recorded), but a miraculous live document of the Miles Davis “Kind Of Blue” Sextet.

Ok. Still with me? Want to hear more? Good! We still many Miles to go! (Sorry.)

Before, and after, Bitches Brew was a very fertile period for Miles. “In A Silent Way,” and “Jack Johnson” are bookends in a sense- the former beautiful, subtle, crystalline, thanks in no small part to the presence of Joe Zawinul, who wrote the title track, in a band that includes 4/5 of the Second Great Quintet, along with John McLaughlin (Guitar), Dave Holland (Bass) and Chick Corea joining Hancock and Zawinul on Keyboards). Recorded in 1969, it’s the album right before Brew. “Jack Johnson” was recorded immediately after Brew in February and April, 1970. Miles Backed by “the greatest rock and roll band you have ever heard” (QUOTE) (McLaughlin, Sonny Sharrock- Guitars, Hancock & Corea- Keyboards, Benny Maupin on Bass Clarinet and Jack DeJohnette and Billy Cobham on Drums, he wasn’t lying.

You’ll notice that many of the albums pictured are the Japanese CD’s. Why? The choice of Lp or CD is up to you. I actually have both of many of these, but my CD’s were nearer to hand.) In records and CD’s there are some who think the Japanese pressings sound better than the American versions. For Miles’ albums, this was true years ago, both in the later days of vinyl Lp’s and the early days of CD’s when many were rushed into production here in the US while paying little attention to sonic quality, sometimes, not even bothering to find the correct master tapes. So, early on, I went for the Japanese CBS/Sony pressings, which are what I still have and are shown here. CBS/Sony (Japanese Columbia Records) was legendarily fastidious in their attention to sound quality. These days, it’s not as much of an issue.

A bigger potential issue is that Columbia, which owns most of Miles recordings up to the 1980’s undertook a reissue program that saw them scour their vaults for unreleased takes to include as part of a series of “Complete” Box Sets. You should also be aware that they remixed (and remastered) the original tapes. This is something I find potentially troublesome in some cases. There is a lot to be said for having the original mixes, when an album was orignally mixed (i.e. was recorded on multi-track equipment.) Off the top of my head, I’m not sure what the current state is of mixes one would get if buying these albums on CD’s today. They might be the original mixes, which would have been done by Miles’ legendary Columbia producer, Teo Macero, more likely, they may have been remixed. It should say somewhere on the packaging. I don’t have them, so I can’t check. The Japanese CBS/Sony pressings I show are both. “Bitches Brew” states that it is a “New Remix,” but there is no additional information anywhere in the package.

Really? By Who? They're not sayin

Really? By Who? They’re not saying.

I’d have to compare them side by side with the original Lp versions out now to know if they’re different. Does it make a difference? Possibly not. Miles music was acoustic up to 1969-1970 and performed in small groups. There’s really not a lot to mess up there, though anything is possible. (Note- Sony, who bought Columbia, issued a 9 CD Box set called “Miles Davis: The Original Mono Recordings” in 2013, of his Columbia albums through 1961, with a few extras. I haven’t heard this because I prefer Stereo, when it issued that way, along with mono.) With the later albums, there’s much more potential for difference. I’m saying all of this to make the buyer aware of it, though it’s a subject I have not as yet seen anyone mention. It applies to other artists, especially rock artists, much more than it might to jazz artists for the reasons I mention.  Still, with any classic recordings, it is something to keep an eye, and ear on. IF you really want to get to the heart of the matter? Go for the original Lp’s. Yes, you can spent a fortune on original pressings, but if you are only looking to get the original mixes, any of the issues from the Lp era will contain them (I can’t vouch for the currently available Lp reissues.) The front cover images of these Japanese CBS/Sony CD’s are the same as the original Lp’s.

Ok. back to the matter at hand. While Miles’ recording career lasted about 40 years, he took about 6 years off from about 1974 to 1980. In 1981 he suddenly returned, with a new album, and a live tour. He continued to do both until he passed in September, 1991. We miss him, still.

The return from retirement.

In 1980 Miles came back after over a decade off. He recorded a string of quite popular albums, but only two of them are going to make my “Shortlist.”

“Tutu” is a different type of masterpiece. Produced by the very underrated Marcus Miller, for me, it harkens back to Gil Evans while using every bit of a contemporary sound, with utmost taste. Brilliant and unexpected, it’s matched every bit by the incredible photography on the cover and in the booklet.

The Prince of Darkness looms out of the Darkness.

The “Prince of Darkness” looms out of the Darkness on the cover of. “Tutu,” by Irving Penn, part of what I think is the greatest photoshoot of Miles ever.. The 4 foot poster of this was pictured in my prior Post.

And finally, “Miles & Quincy: Live At Montreux.” Recorded two and a half months before Miles’ passing, it was one of only two times Miles looked back musically, and WHAT a time! With an orchestra led by Quincy Jones, Miles actually plays the music he made famous with Gil Evans on “Porgy & Bess” and “Sketches of Spain,” 30 years earlier. Most of his fans thought he would NEVER play them again. It was the last musically revolutionary thing he did. Then, two days later in Paris, France, he, again, walked down memory lane, but this time in the company of many of the now Masters who were once his sidemen, including- Wayne Shorter, Joe Zawinul, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Jackie McLean, John Scofield and Dave Holland, among others. Thankfully, Audio and Video recordings of both concerts exist.

The sun never sets on great music. June, 1998 on West 23rd Street.

A perfect conclusion to one of the most important careers in the history of recorded music.

Oh! Lest I forget to at least mention that Miles also recorded extensively with no less than Charlie “Bird” Parker, who he was obsessed to find after moving to NYC to study at Julliard, at age 18. He not only found him, Bird moved in with him, and the two played together off and on regularly during Davis’ key formative years. Many of these recordings are still available, and while they are quite good, and endlessly fascinating, I’d recommend them to fans who have become obsessed with Miles as “something else” to hear and enjoy. It turns out that Miles Davis, perhaps, knew Bird, another of the greatest and most important musicians of the 20th Century, who died at age 34, as well as anyone did. Amazing!


So? There you have it.

Once you make your way through these, you’ll have a good idea which direction you want to go in next. Well? You’re in the right place. Miles’ late 1960’s albums are perceptively labelled-


‘Nuff said. Now…where are my headphones?

*-Soundtrack for this Post is “Someday My Prince Will Come,” from the 1937 Disney film, “Snow White & The 7 Dwarfs,” as recorded by Miles Davis on the album of the same name, which I did not list, but chose because it’s a classic performance of a song that was never intended to be a jazz standard and now is one, and…because it fits. All photos are items from my collection.

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  1. He took about 6 years off from about 1974 to 1980

Ai Weiwei’s Mute Witnesses

This is the second of two Posts about Ai Weiwei’s 4 recent concurrent NYC shows. Part One, about “Ai Weiwei: Laundromat,” at Deitch Projects, may be found here. This piece is on the other 3 shows. 

“Ai Weiwei: 2016: Roots and Branches,” Lisson Gallery, Chelsea

If there’s one thing I think NYC needs many more of, it’s trees. Given the extremely high rate of tree deaths here1, it’s always great when new ones show up. Even transiently. Ai Weiwei temporarily added to our tree population in 2 of his 4 shows, as only he could. Though it’s been over for nearly a month as I write this, I continue to think about this show every day, only partially due to the meditative properties of trees.

Click any photo to see it full size. Lisson Gallery, December, 2016, nicely nestled under the High Line.

Walking into the long rectangular space of Lisson Gallery on West 24th Street in Chelsea during “Ai Weiwei: 2016 Roots and Branches,” you’re confronted by a “forest” of 9 massive tree parts (3 measure almost 16 feet each) situated among 4 newly exposed and equally massive columns for the High Line, which runs directly above the gallery’s ceiling. Along the seemingly endless right hand (western) wall, 16 rows of black and white graphic images fill it’s wallpaper. The other 2 walls remains stark white (the 4th wall being the doors). Natural light streams in from both sides of the long ceiling as if there really were a canopy of leaves and branches above the “trees” allowing only some sunlight in.

A “Zen Garden” of the beauty, and horror, man can create. 7 of the 9 sculptures are seen, or partially seen, along with a partial view of the wallpaper, right.

But, these tree parts show no signs of life, the ones that “stand” only do so due to placement. Or, is it dis-placement?

Though their arrangement invites walking around them and viewing them from all sides, a relevatory experience in itself…

9 views of the same piece- “Iron Root,” 2015. Seen larger, below-

it is viewing them from one angle in particular- directly behind, that one gains a unique perspective. Standing behind them (to their east, that is) you see them with the wallpaper behind them. The effect struck me as making them “mute witnesses” to the seemingly endless spectacle unfolding on the wall. The saga unfolding therein is about war and displacement. The displacement of countless thousands of refugees due to the war in Syria.

A view of just about all of the 200 x 25 feet (my estimate) of wallpaper.

The wallpaper is also designed to be looked at every bit as closely as the tree parts are.

A close-up. You’re not alone if you think you’re looking at real tree bark. Then again? I never get out of Manhattan. This is cast iron.

So encouraged, I returned again and again, continually seeing something “else” so often that after 15 visits, I stopped counting. The first thing that’s striking is it’s all in black and white. Looking a bit closer you note the poses, the lack of detail, and even some of the outfits call to mind the Ancient Greek Vases I’ve seen often at The Met, which is fitting since Idomeni, home of the camp in Ai Weiwei’s “Laundromat,” is in Greece.

About a third of the wallpaper. Each row seems to have it’s own theme.

There’s a lot to see. A detail of 12 of 16 rows in this section.

From bottom- 2 rows of the refugees in flight- by boat, by foot, by vehicle, while the third row depicts the reasons why. In the 4th row from the bottom, Ancient Greek soldiers march on the left, while their modern counterparts march to the right of the fighting animals. Directly above them in Row 5, Ai Weiwei’s iconic extended arm and middle finger looms as a repeating circular motif, which will appear again. To the left in Row 5, a backhoe picks up the clothes left by the refugees in the Idomeni Camp that would become the clothes in Ai Weiwei’s show, “Laundromat.”

Looking even closer, I realized that some of the motifs recur, except in the very middle! There, in what musicians call “the golden section,” some fascinating images appear. They include Michelangelo’s “Vatican Pieta,” and a variant of the image of Nour Al Khzam, the 24 year old Syrian woman refugee who Ai Weiwei had a piano brought to the Idomeni Camp for, (as I wrote about, and Posted a photo of, in Part 1)! We see her playing the piano, while others (including Ai Weiwei himself, seen from the back) hold up a plastic sheet to protect her from the rain that day. Yet, in the wallpaper, we don’t see rain. So? Perhaps they are protecting her from everything else that’s going on. Is this Ai Weiwei’s way of speaking about the value of protecting your creativity, no matter what’s going on around you? Or, protecting what’s most important to you? Or, does it speak to overcoming all over this and having a life after, like Ai Weiwei, himself did?

The wallpaper’s “Golden Section,” (the darkened center section) features Nour Al Khzam right smack dab in the middle of the entire 200 foot piece (rows 6 & 12). Also notice Michelangelo’s “Vatican Pieta,” just to the left of center in rows 3, 9 and 15. Elsewhere we see a huge explosion (rows 4, 10, 16) and a baby, perhaps abandoned, under trees (rows 1, 7 and 13).

A singular image. A close-up of the image of 24 year old Nour Al Khzam playing piano as Ai Weiwei (right) and others hold a plastic sheet over her. A photo of the event is here.

I was left to ask my friends, the trees.

If you were careful, you could stand inside the semi-circular “Iron Tree Trunk,” 2015. It felt like a hug.

I felt a terrible pang when this show ended on December 23, and I’ve missed it daily since.

Outside Lisson Gallery on December 26, “Iron Tree Trunk,” 2015, and a piece of the wallpaper still barely visible on the right. My tears are not shown.


Partially, it’s the beauty of these “trees.” They are contemporary sculpture at it’s finest, in my opinion. I could look at them endlessly. Partially it’s the wallpaper has sucked me in to trying to understand it’s every detail. Real trees spend their entire lives in one place. Something humans can’t imagine doing. Trees have been meditative objects for a thousand years in Zen Buddhism and elsewhere. They are that, here, as well. These “tree parts” were created from parts of dead trees brought down from the mountains of southern China and sold in the markets of Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province, where Ai Weiwei found them and brought them to his studio.

Maybe the show reminds me of life in NYC, where the few trees we have stand alone as all the chaos and activity of this insanely busy City happens around them. Perhaps, Ai Weiwei, who lived here for 10 years, intends this. Perhaps not. But this is no story of City life unfolding up there, with each of those 16 bands telling a different part of it simultaneously, perhaps symbolizing that these events were happening to so many people simultaneously, each making their own journey, and each with their own experiences and story. It’s a story that begins with the horrors of war and it’s various instruments (including Ai’s trademark surveillance cameras), followed by the long, treacherous journeys, of (too) many refugees, to lands unknown, their lives in the camps, a story that, unfortunately, continues for who knows how many. Here we come face to face with man- at his best, as when he is creating Art, and at his worst, when he is killing and ruining the lives of countless innocents, who have no one to turn to for help. Taken as a whole, Ai Weiwei has created one of the most unique Zen-like “Gardens” ever seen. One that offers almost as much to ponder as a “real” Zen Garden.

“Ai Weiwei: 2016: Roots and Branches,” Mary Boone Gallery, Chelsea

The new LEGO triple self portrait, “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn,” a LEGO version of his well-known work, “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn,” 1995, is seen in the background. Better view and details below-

Ai “was so much older then, he’s younger than that now.” And, “playing” with toys. Sorry, Bob. Ai Weiwei as seen in his recent LEGO version of his work, “Dropping a Han Dynasty,”1995

Besides “Laundromat” (the only show of the 4 with a different title), Ai Weiwei’s three other NYC shows, “Ai Weiwei 2016: Roots and Branches,” eshewed the use of his most renowned media- the internet, photography and words (seen to devastating effect in “Laundromat”) to focus on two other of his “signature” mediums- natural elements and ancient artifacts along with one newer medium- LEGO portraits, originally inspired by his son, who constantly plays with them. His LEGO works were previously seen in, perhaps, his most political show to date- “Ai Weiwei: @Large,” which took place at none other than the former site of one of the world’s most notorious prisons, Alcatraz. Ironically, Ai Weiwei, himself, was not able to attend that show as he was still living out the rest of his sentence following his 81 days of imprisonment, that saw him unable to travel internationally (because his passport was still held). At Alcratraz, the work, “Trace,” consisted of LEGO portraits of 176 people from around the world who have been imprisoned or exiled because of their beliefs or affiliations,” according to the show’s press release. This time, the LEGO Portraits on view at Mary Boone Gallery, Chelsea (a few hundred feet west of the Lisson Gallery show), were confined to “Self Portraits.” These were juxtaposed with two works in wood- both “sculptural,” and both “puzzles” in their own way, while, again, one wall was lined with gorgeous, fascinating wallpaper, this time in gold.

“Tree” at Mary Boone Gallery, Chelsea

In the main room, facing the LEGO triple self portrait seen above, a “Tree” was, again, the centerpiece This time it’s one, monumental “Tree,” 25 feet tall, that is constructed of actual weathered sections of dead trees that, according to the press release, “may be seen as a comment on the strength of modern China built from many ancient ethnic groups, or a determined attempt to create something new and vital from what is irrevocably lost.” In China, dead trees are venerated as important counterparts to the dead on earth, the realm between heaven and the underworld.2 It stands in front of another monumental wallpaper piece, this one I believe titled “Golden Age,” another graphic tour de force. This work is based on images from AWW’s life- from the ever present surveillance cameras, police chains and handcuffs, to cats- all depicted in a lustrous 3-D gold. For me, it stands for overcoming oppression and turning it’s artifacts into beautiful objects that are, now, just another part of his life, like his beloved cats.

“Golden Age,” detail, and reflection.

Situated on center stage, here, “Tree,” is, seemingly, another work that speaks to modern China being a blend of many ethnic groups, like “Map of China” is, see further down. That the parts making it are dead, as is the whole construction, of course, is something I cannot offer a comment about. I can say that I find it a compelling idea, and object, and one that some of it’s base parts seemed to bear a resemblance to the Iron Roots seen at Lisson.

Also on view here was the amazing “Treasure Box,” a sculptural piece of furniture made of ancient reclaimed huali wood, which is actually an intricate puzzle box of sliding and locking components3

Ancient & Contemporary puzzles. “Treasure Box,” sits in front of “Self-Portrait,” made of LEGO bricks.

This is, surely, an aspect of Weiwei’s work that, while not by any means new, deserves more attention and study. The Mary Boone, Chelsea show struck me as being “about” things not being what they seem. Being “more,” perhaps, and being “other.” There’s still one more show left to see…

“Ai Weiwei: 2016: Roots and Branches,” Mary Boone Gallery, Uptown

40,000 spouts broken from antique Chinese porcelain teapots are surrounded by “Finger” Wallpaper.

The final show, at Mary Boone’s Uptown Gallery may be his comment on all of this.

Detail of the spouts

“Finger” Wallpaper, and detail-

Yes, a variant of this wallpaper, too, is available, here.

As the world has seen these past 6+ years since his “Sunflower Seeds” Show at Tate Modern, London, brought him to international renown in 2010, Ai Weiwei is a man with a strong conscience. He’s not shy to share it with the world, whenever, and wherever he sees things that bother him. While it’s tempting to say that he’s turning his attention away from China after his arrest and 81 day imprisonment in 2011, he said to the Council on Foreign Relations in November

“When I fight human rights in China, I never think that’s human rights in China. I think that’s human rights everywhere. That’s first. And also, when I’m dealing with situation outside of China, I don’t even think that it’s not going to help China, you know? Human rights is the value which I believe is universal, it relate to everybody.”

“Garbage Container,” an elegy to five homeless boys who suffocated in a dumpster while trying to stay warm.

Summing up…

The meditative effect of all four shows was the common takeaway for me, vastly different from the meditative effect of “Mark Rothko: Dark Palette,” a few hundred of feet away from Ai Weiwei’s 2 Chelsea shows. While Rothko’s meditative impact is almost otherworldly, akin to standing in a door way open to…?, Ai Weiwei has us meditate on life, presence and absence, having roots and being rootless, what it is to be human, and what it should be to be human.

Speaking of “being human,” it almost looks like a hand. Or, maybe an extended arm and extended…hmmm…

For me, the shows seemed to flow into each other from south to north, beginning with “Laundromat,” the southern most, in Soho, to Lisson on West 24th, to Mary Boone, Chelsea, further west on 24th, and finally up to Mary Boone uptown. I have no idea if this was the intention, or not.  The Lisson show carries pieces of Laundromat, while the Mary Boone, Chelsea, shares the “tree” motif of Lisson, and Mary Boone uptown shares Ai Weiwei’s trademark extended arm and extended middle finger motif with Mary Boone, Chelsea, though it now is the overriding motif. It’s hard, for me, not to see this as Ai Weiwei extending his middle finger (and that of 39,999 refugees), now, to the “powers that be,” that have created and largely ignored this refugee crisis, while seemingly having little solution for the crisis to come. But? Your results may differ. Everyone is free to take from it what they will, or leave without taking anything from it. In this case, that would be a shame, and might be shortsighted. If it’s not “personal” for you now, it might be one day. There…but by grace, go I.

“Golden Age,” Detail. You, too, can hang (a variant) of this on your wall, here.

Of course, Ai Weiwei is not the only Artist who was a refugee. The 20th Century, for instance, is full of them. Some of them, like Marc Chagall, and the great composer Bela Bartok, created works of nostalgia for their homelands, not documentary works about being exiled. Then, there is Picasso, who created “Guernica,” in 1937, about the tragic bombing of that small Spanish town in his homeland, while he was living in Paris, where he would remain throughout the Nazi occupation that began a few years later, through the end of the Second World War, and after, in continuing exile from Spain. Perhaps the greatest artistic record of exile we have was created by a “young girl,”- Annelies, better known as Anne, Frank, the brilliant young writer who’s life ended at 15 at the hands of the Nazis, but who managed to write for the ages about her exile in her own country before she was discovered, and arrested in her “Diary of a Young Girl,” which has sold 30 million copies to date. While Ai Weiwei depicts, and documents, the Syrian Refugee crisis, he has only, as yet (as far as I know), documented his own exile in words. He’s spoken about it in interviews, and written about it in “Ai Weiwei’s Blog,” (which I will say, again, is the best place to start reading about him, so far). His words are chilling, unforgettable, and impossible for me to get out of my mind when I visited these shows. About the “earthen pit” his family lived in when he was 8 years old he said –

“…when pigs would run overhead, their bottoms would fall through our roof, making us all too familiar with the sight of swine nether regions….on one occasion, because there was no light in our earthen pit, my father was descending into our home and smashed his head on a roof beam. He fell immediately to the earth on his knees with a bleeding forehead. Because of this, we dug out a shovel’s depth of dirt, an equivalent to raising our roof twenty centimeters (about 8 inches).”4

While his mediums keep expanding (LEGO portraits), others, especially his sculpture and “furniture,” continue to evolve in wonderful ways. Yet no matter what he does, or what he creates with, his heart, mind, passion, and humanity- his core values, come through loud and clear. Not being one who’s given to compare creative beings, I still find it hard to think that this decade, that still has 3 years to go, is the decade of any other Artist. This is Ai Weiwei’s decade.

Like son, like father. Ai Weiwei says he was inspired by his son’s passion for LEGO to try them himself.

As this decade has unfolded, I find he reminds me of someone else. Another man from the East, who has lived in exile for a very long time. A man with a deep knowledge of the West, a man of compassion, wisdom and humanity. The Dalai Lama. One has written a book called “The Art of Happiness,” the other has done more than most others to bring compassion to those suffering, through Art. I make no comparison of them. I am simply saying that one brings the other to mind. In any event, there is no doubt that Ai Weiwei has gone from being an exile to being an unknown Artist and Art Student in New York for a decade to now having the eye, and ear, of a good part of the world. In doing so, am I alone in feeling that what he espouses about human rights and freedom sounds a good deal like what passed for “traditional American values” for most of my life?

A detail of the above. LEGO refused a bulk order from Ai Weiwei last year, which resulted in a furor that led to the company reversing themselves.

Artistically, these shows raised another question for me.

Even now, very rarely do I see his work on view in the museums here. Right now, The Met lists zero works of his in their online database of over 700,000 items (about 1/3 of their total holdings)! I do recall seeing 5 works of his displayed during the “Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China” Show there in 2014., including the one I photographed, below. It turns out that all five were lent to The Met. MoMA lists 12 of his works out of their 73,000 items currently online. Of those 12, 7 are photographs with his extended middle finger at various locations, 4 are books, and one is a magazine! I have to say I find it shameful that there is no major work of his in either The Met or MoMA! I would love for either, or both, to tell me why not.

Ai Weiwei at The Met! “Map of China” 2006, a work that speaks to the mosaic of fragments that is China today, made from wood salvaged from destroyed temples, as seen (on loan) in the “Ink Art” in China Show in 2014.

While we see the results of uprooting in both it’s natural and unnatural ways, at Lisson, Ai Weiwei turns uprooting into creative acts in using the felled tree parts as the basis for his sculptures and the travails of the refugees who’s journeys he shows us in “Laundromat” into what he depicts so beautifully on Lisson’s western wall, in trying to give them a voice, and make their experiences known. During my daily visits, I, and many of my fellow visitors, stood looking at, and contemplating, the complex images that seemed to stretch out endlessly before us on that wall. Like the lines of refugees must have looked like in transit. When I was alone in the gallery, I was like the the cast iron trees before me standing as “mute witnesses” to what was going on in front of us on the wallpaper.

Now that this unique show that was equal parts horror show, and equal parts astonishingly beautiful- depicting the best, and worst of what man is capable of, is over, it’s up to all of those who saw it to not remain mute.

Since Ai Weiwei lived in New York for 10 years? In my book, he will always be a New Yorker.

Welcome home, Ai Weiwei. Come back soon.

*-Soundtrack for this Post is “Subterranean Homesick Alien,” by Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood, Phil Selway, Ed O’Brien and Colin Greeenwood of Radiohead, as performed on “OK Computer.”

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  1. In my 25 years of living here, I’ve come to believe this is part of the reason for so many tree deaths. Not all of it. Part.
  3. It can be seen opened in the Royal Academy, London’s Ai Weiwei Exhibition catalog.
  4. “Ai Weiwei’s Blog,” P. 53

Ai Weiwei & The Value of One Refugee

Ai Weiwei returned to show his latest work in NYC for the first time since getting his passport back, making a splash to rival his last big show here (which he could not attend), the retrospective “Ai Weiwei: According To What?” (at the Brooklyn Museum in 2014), this time with no less than FOUR concurrent shows- one in Soho, two in Chelsea and one Uptown. With so much terrain to traverse, and with so much to see, it makes sense to adapt my approach to writing about them, so I’m going to cover the 4 shows over 2 Posts, as follows-

“Ai Weiwei: 2016 Roots & Branches” @Mary Boone Gallery, Chelsea
“Ai Weiwei: 2016 Roots & Branches” @Mary Boone Gallery, Uptown and
“Ai Weiwei: 2016 Roots & Branches” @Lisson Gallery, Chelsea in a second Post, here.
“Ai Weiwei: Laundromat” @Deitch Projects, Soho will be the subject of this one. 

“Ai Weiwei: Laundromat”-

Deitch Projects. Also seen in this Blog’s Banner.

Of the 4 shows, the centerpiece has to be “Laundromat” at Deitch Projects, an unprecedented Art show/installation, unlike anything I’ve encountered.

View just inside the front door. Click any image to see the full size photo.

Along with an upcoming documentary film, it’s part of the Artist’s response to the Syrian Refugee Crisis as experienced by the estimated 18,000 (at it’s peak) in the refugee camp at Idomeni, in Northern Greece, on the Macedonian border.

Ai Weiwei said-
“When we started filming in Idomeni, the first thing we noticed was people trying to change their clothes. These are the clothes they wore from Syria, wet and soiled from the difficult journey across the ocean, over mountains and through woods. They had no chance to wash their clothes until they were forced to stop in Idomeni. They would hand wash the clothes and throw it on the border fence to dry. There was nowhere else to hang dry their laundry. We photographed the clothes, but we did not, and could not, imagine they could later be included in an exhibition. The clothes were some of the few possessions they could take when they decided to leave their homes. There is not much else they could take. Off the coast of Lesbos, I found an abandoned boat drifting in the sea. Inside, I found a copy of the Bible and a baby’s bottle. You would also find small objects wash up on the shore. These objects were the most precious things a person could have, the last things they brought with them as they sought a new life.”

Merry Christmas

“Once the refugees were forced to evacuate to different camps from Idomeni, many of those possessions were left behind. Trucks came in and loaded these items up to take towards the landfill. I decided to see if we could buy or collect them so they would not be destroyed. Previously, my studio collected many life jackets from the local officials in Lesbos and made an installation with them at the Berlin Konzerthaus. My team negotiated with local officials who agreed to let us have the collected material. They were aware of our presence and were supportive. With a truckload of those materials, including thousands of blankets, clothes and shoes, all impossibly dirty, we transported them to my studio in Berlin. There, we carefully washed the clothes and shoes, piece by piece. Each article of clothing was washed, dried, ironed, and then recorded. Our work was the same as that of a laundromat.”1

Every item is hand tagged. These read “Baby Rompers.”

While Downtown New Yorkers are no strangers to acts of war and terrorism, catastrophic weather or blackouts2, one of the strange things about living through those events, for me, was that many people in other parts of the City, who were directly unaffected by them, lived in a certain level of oblivion about them. Many seemed completely disconnected from what was going on right in their own City. It can be easy to understand when you look at this, from the Hurricane Sandy blackout, which effected me, and all of downtown New York for 5 days to 2 weeks.  Now? At “Laundromat,” I was the “directly unaffected,” I had never heard of Idomeni, Greece, and knew little about the Syrian Civil War that’s led to 13.6 million refugees3 seeking to rebuild their lives elsewhere. That’s equal to the population of London. During my 5 visits to  it was easy to say now what others may have said about the Sandy Blackout- life gets to be so all-encompassing that few of us really know what’s going on in much of the City, let alone the rest of the world. It’s different when it’s personal.

I’m sure there are those who walked in and thought “This is Art? It looks like the Salvation Army.” I know what they mean. But? Yes, I consider this to be Art, and I consider it to be groundbreaking Art. “Laundromat’s” range of expression is formidable. Ai Weiwei is the master Artist of the electronic information age. Recently named “The Most Influential Photographer of the Past 10 Years” by (Cindy Sherman placed 13th, Annie Liebovitz 8th, and Sebastio Salgado didn’t place.? Yet, another reason I don’t believe in qualitatively comparing Artists.). Weiwei’s Blog was, perhaps, the first “essential” Blog of the 2000’s, before it was forcibly removed. Part of it has been translated and published and is still in print.4 Mr. Ai became the first Artist to have photographs “go viral” with his now infamous shot in the elevator with police after his arrest in 2009. Now, he has combined mediums (thousands of photographs, an excerpt from his upcoming documentary film and hundreds of internet articles and social media postings), with actual objects- the clothes and shoes left by the refugees in the camp. The clothes hang on racks. Washed, ironed and/or cleaned, they are “ready-to-wear,” tagged by hand and sorted by type, sex and age, near hundreds of shoes aligned in neat rows on the floor- about an equal number of matching pairs and singles. The shoes are of every kind imaginable, except high heels. (I saw only one pair with a very low heel.) Boots, low boots, sneakers dominate. I assume because their owner’s felt they were finished with crossing wet terrains or bodies of water. Both are present in mute witness to what they have seen and experienced.
What their wearers have experienced can never be washed away that easily. Many are, no doubt, still going through the experience of being a refugee and seeking an answer.

“Time to recharge my batteries” this shirt reads.

A Sea of Words. Hundreds of news and web postings seen in the “Newsfeed” section of the show, which fills the floor beneath visitor’s feet.

“Laundromat” is a deeply personal show for Ai Weiwei. On a number of levels. First, he seems to just naturally respond to humans in crisis, all over the world, be they individuals in the case of the Feminist Activist Ye Haiyan, as we saw in Brooklyn, in “Ye Haiyan’s Belongings,”  in 2013 (which recreated that photo verbatim, installing all of her belongings in a gallery in the Brooklyn Museum(!), something of a possibly precursor to this show), or his powerful documentary “Stay Home,” about the Aids activist  Liu Ximei, or by trying to put names and identity to the countless thousands lost in the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake, the subject of Backpack pieces “Remembering,” 2009, installed in Germany, and “Snake Ceiling” (seen in Brooklyn) as well as the monumental work “Straight,” 2008-12, which consists of 40 tons of rebar from the Sichuan quake that Ai recovered and striaghtened, It was powerfully displayed alongside the list-turned-wall paper, “Names of the Student Earthquake Victims Found by the Citizen’s Investivation,” 2008-11, in Brooklyn, photos of which I posted here. The amount of work he, his staff and volunteers put in to try and identify the dead children was nothing less than monumental. “Laundromat” is only the latest “piece” in Ai’s ongoing “work” regarding human rights. It, too, is monumental, in more ways than one.

I’m left to wonder- If he didn’t do this, who would? Would anyone?

First learning about this refugee crisis in 2015, after being freed from jail, but still unable to leave China, he dispatched two members of his staff to go see the camps and interview refugees. Once he got his passport back, he travelled to Germany, where he could get a much closer look at what was going on. Then he decided to go to Idomeni, and document it. “Laundromat” is the first result of those efforts. The documentary film, “Human Flow,” is next, scheduled to be released in 2017.

The second level of this being personal for Ai Weiwei is that he, himself, lived in exile for TWENTY YEARS! And? They began when he was an infant, in 1957.

He says-
“When I was born, my father (the great poet and intellectual), Ai Qing, was denounced as a ‘rightist’ and was criticized as an enemy of the party and the people. We were sent to a labour camp in a remote region far away from our home and so began 20 years in hard exile, which saw my father clean bathrooms and the family live in an earthen pit5.” This was after Ai Qing had been a friend of Chairman Mao (Ai Weiwei has spoken about handwritten letters from Mao being in their home), and had served as a representative of the Chinese government. “We carried almost nothing with us to the camp, only trying to survive. It was an extremely difficult time being seen as a foreigner in your own nation, an enemy of your own people, an enemy of those my father loved most. I know what it is like to be viewed as a pariah, as sub-human, as a threat and danger to society.”1. When the exile ended in 1976, and Ai Qing and his family returned to Beijing, many of his father’s readers had assumed he had died. Before he was all that he is today, Ai Weiwei grew up a refugee.
Now, he has turned the latest refugee crisis, coming after what the New York Times called “The Century of Refugees,” into a work of Art, giving voices to all of those who have not been heard. It’s impossible to walk through these clothes and shoes and not feel their presence- that there was a person for every single article here- especially the babies. Though cleaned, evidence of personal wear remains that is permanent, along with what is permanent, though now invisible- the experiences each of these items, and the person wearing them went through. You wonder “Did someone really make this trip wearing thong sandals?” You see many well-known famous brand names, like Adidas, famous images and icons, as well, including “Hello, Kitty,” even “Barbie.”
The clothes look like clothes you could see being sold right down the street, though many of the labels are unfamiliar (a classic way New Yorkers identify tourists), yet so much of what’s here is so common- everywhere in the commercialized world. and not all that different from the jeans t-shirt, sneakers and jacket I’m wearing standing among them. Though, of course, it’s very hard to consider the Idomeni Camp part of the “civilized world,” especially when you read accounts of it, like this one from International Women’s Rights Journalist, Jina Moore.
What are  you going to wear if your house catches fire and burns, or, you have to leave town, or state, or country…in a real emergency, or war?
A story could be told for each item here. Mr. Ai could have made a show with one item, and it would have been quite powerful, but it wouldn’t have been this show. As you walk among the clothes, or around the shoes, look at the thousands of photos on three of the 4 walls, and the hundreds of internet articles and posts on the floor beneath your feet, it is easy to become numb to the numbers, but the little bits of individuality each item retains reminds you of a more finite realm of experience. This is a group made up of people. Of individuals, like you, and me. 1+1+1+…= 18,000.

In the midst of ALL of this, the sea of humanity (not to mention the actual Seas surrounding Greece they crossed), the incredible hardships, suffering and deaths, there was one small part of this story, and this show, I found particularly interesting & revealing, though nothing about it is mentioned in the show itself! I only learned about it through doing my research. Ai Weiwei came across a 24 year old Syrian refugee named Nour Al Khzam, who’s photo I spotted (above) among the thousands on the walls, who is from Deirez Zor, Syria. She was trying to get to Germany to reunite with her husband. Before fleeing Syria she had been studying piano. Ai Weiwei arranged for a piano to be brought to the Idomei Camp so she could play it, as seen in the photos immediately above. I know he’ll be criticized for doing this, but I find it poignent because it speaks to a number of important things, including- going on with your life and realizing your creativity, even after being a refugee (which Ai Weiwei, himself did). It also speaks to something very important- What is the value of one refugee? How many great Artists, maybe an Ai Weiwei, great Scientists, or great people are among these refugees?

This image, above (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images) of Ai Weiwei, right, helping to hold a plastic sheet while Ms. Al Khzam’s plays in the rain that day is of particular importance, as we shall see next time. (Note- This photo was not included in the show.)
Though Idomeni is half a world away, there was a beautiful piece of New York City included in this show. Among the materials handed out at Deitch was a sheet containing “September on Jessore Road,” by “New York’s Poet,” as Ai Weiwei calls his friend, Allen Ginsberg, written after Ginsberg had visited the Bangladeshi refugee camps in 1971. Allen Ginsberg had come to know Ai Qing during a trip to Beijing. And with it, AWW adds poetry to the list of mediums included in this show.
Having lived through a few events that might have made me a refugee (the Hurricane Sandy blackout left me without means of getting off of Manhattan, except on foot), the inescapable feeling of “Laundromat” was “There, but by grace, go I.” If anything defines the 20th Century as much as the airplane, space flight, electricity and the atomic bomb, it’s the refugee. More of them were created in one century than at any time in world history.
“I cannot give them food or tea, or money, but rather I can let their voices be heard and recognized. I can give them a platform to be acknowledged, to testify that they are human beings. During the saddest moments in our history, mankind has had to prove their worth as humans to their own kind. Unfortunately, this has proven to be the most difficult task. As an artist, this is something I would like to take on1.”
Ai Weiwei reminds us here that in this new millennium we have yet to find a way to deal with this world wide question.

There- but by grace, go I.

“He wants to see how far an individual’s power can go,” Chen Danquing, a Chinese painter and social critic said in the Nw Yorker’s profile of Ai Weiwei in 20108.  Ai Weiwei doesn’t help all of people directly, as he said, that’s not within his means. Yet he, in the way he lives his life, and in his work, stands for freedom- Artistic freedom and human rights. He, and his work, continually remind us of the primacy of human rights in ways that are unique, powerful and unforgettable. As for an “individual’s power?” The more of his work I see, the more I read his words, and the more I see of his compassion and soul, I’ve come to believe that Ai Weiwei is one of the most important human beings of our time. He has become something of the “conscience” of the Art world. If not the world, itself.

As big a statement as that is, even beyond it, no one can leave this show without remembering that here is a man who has accomplished so very much in the world after he, himself, lived in exile as a refugee in his own country for 20 years (not to mention everything else he has had to overcome). Though he wasn’t able to help them all financially, etc. I think he understated the impact he may have had on them.

Ai Weiwei at the Idomeni Camp.

As much as every item in “Laundromat” speaks for those with no voice, Ai Weiwei, the man, is living proof a refugee can survive, overcome, and make a lasting mark on the world. I have a feeling his mere presence in Idomeni served to remind at least some of those he encountered of that, and possibly gave them hope. How do you put a value on that? Of course he chose to avoid mention of any such thing when he commented on what he could and couldn’t do for them.

I don’t have to.

*-Soundtrack for this Post is “The Unknown,” by Acrassicauda, a heavy-metal band from Baghdad, themselves exiled by the Iraqi War, and the subject of the documentary “Heavy Metal in Baghdad.” I had the honor to meet and hang out with Tony Aziz, their lead guitarist, in 2011, shortly after the band finally made it to the United States. Talk about overcoming, and continuing to follow your  dream…

(PS- Oh yeah…I still have THREE more Ai Weiwei shows to see…)

Please send comments, thoughts, feedback or propositions to denizen at
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  1. Deitch Projects Interview, 2016.
  2. Hurricane Sandy caused a partial evacuation
  3. According to the UN., 6.4 million have fled the country. An additional 7.2 million are displaced within Syria.
  4. It may be the most essential book on Ai Weiwei, along with the Taschen monograph, which, though published in April, 2016, is already slightly dated as his career continually evolves. Perhaps the best way to stay current with Ai Weiwei is on his Instagram page. But, be forewarned- he almost never captions his photos there, like he does not for the thousands of them in this show.
  5. “Ai Weiwei’s Blog,” P.53
  6. Deitch Projects Interview, 2016.
  7. Deitch Projects Interview, 2016.
  8. May 24, 2010