Last Friday, after a long week punctuated by some pretty stunning news in this election cycle, I went to Lucien in the East Village to have a martini and, what do you know, world-famous Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei is sitting there with his dealers from Lisson Gallery, Alex and Nicholas Logsdail. Though Ai has been free to travel for a year now, it’s still a little jarring to see an artist who was so publicly barred from leaving China—and an artist of immense international fame—sitting in my local bistro. Polite introductions ensued, and then he asked if I would be coming to see his shows next week.
That would be shows, plural, because today four different galleries opened exhibitions of his work simultaneously, marking his big return to New York after five years. During that time he was detained for 81 days by the Chinese government, had his passport seized, and was forced to stay in the country. He tweeted constantly, and saw his fame increase, even as he was not allowed to exhibit his work in China.
But now, more than a year after the government gave him back his passport, he’s exhibiting not only at Lisson’s Chelsea space under the High Line but also at Mary Boone’s two spaces, on Fifth Avenue in Midtown and in Chelsea, and at Deitch Projects on Wooster Street in SoHo. Ai has a deep connection to New York, having lived in Williamsburg and the Lower East Side as a young artist. The elder Logsdail said Lucien is one of Ai’s spots, and the artist was also seen at Clinton Hill cafe The Market, along with performance artist Tehching Hsieh, on Saturday after his talk with Tania Bruguera at the Brooklyn Museum.
To mark Ai’s big return, I decided to hit up all four spaces in the span of an hour, utilizing Citi Bike as much as possible to avoid traffic and subway snafus. First up was Mary Boone’s Fifth Avenue space. When I arrived at 11:30 a.m., I was the only visitor to the gallery. The main room was filled with 40,000 spouts broken off from Chinese porcelain teapots arranged in a circle, and in the side room, a big puzzle box made from reclaimed huali wood. Charming little show.
(Less charming, though, is the building you have to go past after leaving the gallery: Trump Tower, the residence and headquarters of the Republican nominee for president. What a gaudy and deeply unattractive building façade! It must be really unpleasant to live there these days, like dealer Helly Nahmad does. At least there weren’t any Trump supports outside; in fact, the only people milling out there were a few tourists taking selfies. Sad!)
Down in Chelsea, Mary Boone had a decidedly louder show in its West 24th Street space, with the centerpiece being Tree, a 25-foot-high sculptural work that was installed by bolting together sections of dead trees from China. And then across the street, at Lisson, there were more tree trunks, but this time in cast iron, with the iron High Line beams that the gallery had to build around exposed throughout the gallery, heightening the industrial feel.
Then, after a bike ride that took me down nearly all of Bleecker Street before swerving right to get to SoHo, I arrived at Jeffrey Deitch’s large Wooster Street space, which he’s now settled into after taking it back from Swiss Institute in September. Here we have “Laundromat,” featuring installations of racks of clothing that fill the giant space—clothes that Ai had taken from refugee camps housing Syrian immigrants near the border of Greece.
Having completed the three-neighborhood tour of Ai’s new works, there was a lunch at Deitch Projects, accompanied by some remarks by Deitch, Alex Logsdail, and Boone. Deitch said that Ai is “One of the great artists in the world, and a great person,” before handing the microphone to Ai, who had told Deitch he would make some “very, very brief” remarks.
“Thank you for coming, and then enjoy the show,” he said, handing back the microphone.
And then, at the lunch upstairs, I found the artist taking the empty seat next to me while I bit into a BLT.
“You made it to all four galleries?” he said after I congratulated him. “Did it look OK?”
I nodded and told him you had to be careful when coming out of Boone’s uptown space, given how close it is to Trump Tower.
“Yeah it’s scary!” he said.
Then he told me that, after spending the last few weeks here, he’s leaving New York on Saturday, to go back to his studio in Berlin. But he’ll be back in June, he said. Ai is finalizing another show here, this time at just one space, but a pretty big one: the Park Avenue Armory.