Political dissident and world-renowned artist Ai Weiwei has taken over Los Angeles this fall with three shows: “Life Cycle” at the Marciano Art Foundation (through March 3, 2019), “Zodiac” at Jeffrey Deitch (through January 5, 2019), and “Cao/Humanity” at the UTA Artist Space (through December 1, 2018). Never one to shy away from spectacle, the Chinese artist has filled these spaces with monumental works that are sure to capture the public’s attention and, he hopes, raise awareness about international human-rights issues.
At the Marciano Foundation—a former Masonic temple, redeveloped as a contemporary art center by brothers Maurice and Paul Marciano, the founders of Guess—Ai has filled a ground-floor black box space with an expanse of 49 tons of handmade porcelain sunflower seeds and thousands upon thousands of spouts from antique teapots, as a commentary on the power of the individual in a mass of humanity. But his true accomplishment here is Life Cycle (2018), a monumental recreation of an inflatable raft commonly used by refugees, filled with passengers, all made out of lengths of bamboo. Surrounded by other bamboo works and quotes from philosophers and writers like Socrates to Zadie Smith that refer to the care of strangers in our midst, Life Cycle was especially moving since it was one of the final works made by the artist in his Beijing studio, which Chinese authorities destroyed this summer. That fact is a potent reminder that the artist is currently in exile, having left China in 2015 after being confined to the country for four years following his arrest and 81-day detention in 2011.
“He knew from the beginning what he wanted to do and was very sensitive to the architecture of the space,” Jamie Manne, the deputy director of the Marciano Foundation, said of Ai, in an interview. The public response has been overwhelming, with tickets for the show selling out for the entirety of October from the moment it opened at the end of September.
Ai, whose German visa will expire at the end of this year, is eyeing properties in Upstate New York as his next residence, but in the meantime, Los Angeles seems like a haven for him to experiment. At UTA Artist Space, the visual arts wing of the United Talent Agency, he is presenting a field of grass made out of marble and decorated with living mushrooms from local lawns. Titled Cao (grass in Mandarin Chinese), the piece is a play on words, since cao, when pronounced with a different intonation, means “fuck”—one of the artist’s favorite phrases of protest. In an interior gallery space, UTA is showing a video, Humanity, of individuals reading from the artist’s slim blue volume of the same name, which contains collected quotes he made during the promotion of his film, Human Flow, released in 2017. UTA clients who have participated in Humanity include Susan Sarandon, Owen Wilson, and Ewan MacGregor.
Finally, Jeffrey Deitch has inaugurated his new 15,000-square-foot, Frank Gehry–designed gallery in Hollywood with a spread of 5,929 stools from the Ming and Qing dynasties and the Republican period, which take over most of its main exhibition space. On the walls surrounding Stools (2013), the gallery is exhibiting 12 portraits of Zodiac animals, playfully created out of hundreds of Lego tiles. Both installations relate to Ai’s use of accumulations, the collection of tens of thousands of individual elements that inspire awe at the sheer human effort involved in a work’s creation. The show represents a triumphant return to Los Angeles for Deitch, who left his position as director of the city’s Museum of Contemporary Art in 2013 under a cloud of criticism.
At the receptions for each of these shows in late September, Ai patiently posed for selfies, as visitors stood on lines to meet him, ignoring the many celebrities in attendance. But the mood for the all the festivities was darkened by tragedy: the sudden death on September 14 of Josh Roth, who had founded UTA Fine Arts in 2015. Roth first met Ai when the artist came to Los Angeles seeking funding for Human Flow, and the artist was one of the first clients represented by the UTA’s fine-art division. During that visit, Roth showed Ai the former diamond-tool factory he planned to open as an exhibition space, and the artist served as architect on the project.
Since Ai measures his impact by the extent to which he influences real-world change, rather than by sales or publicity, he may be disappointed by his immediate effect in L.A. But this trio of shows should be considered a command performance, and one that is guaranteed to win over new followers to his work.