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.”

Please send comments, thoughts, feedback or propositions to denizen at
Click the white box on the upper right, for the archives, to search, or to subscribe.
This Post was created by Kenn Sava for

  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