A Midwestern premiere marks the return of the newly renovated and expanded Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum on the Danforth Campus of Washington University in St. Louis.
Yet it’s no ordinary debut.
Artist Ai Weiwei may be one of the most renowned working Chinese artists in the world. The Beijing-born creative, whose work has been exhibited in Jerusalem, Istanbul, London, New York City and more, can now add St. Louis to his first thematic museum exhibition in the Midwest.
“Ai Weiwei is one of the most important artists of our time, but also one of our most important humanitarian voices,” says William T. Kemper director and chief curator Sabine Eckmann, who also curated the exhibition. “His practice is grounded both in the history of art – especially conceptualism and minimalism – and in a kind of radical realism that forces us to grapple with urgent political and ethical questions. I feel incredibly privileged to bring Ai and his work to St. Louis.”
“Ai Weiwei: Bare Life” encompasses more than 35 works spanning the last two decades of the artist’s career. Split into two thematic sections, exhibition pieces include sculptures, photographs, films and site-specific installations, all in the freshly expanded Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum.
The museum, which closed in May 2018 for the expansion and reopened on Sept. 28 of this year, sports a striking new façade of polished stainless steel that stands 34 feet high, adding an artistic element of invitation and reflection to the university’s lush campus. Other major additions include a glass-lined lobby, the 2,700-square-foot James M. Kemper Gallery, the reinstalled Florence Steinberg Weil Sculpture Garden and other reimagined galleries, plus more minor details, such as a coffee bar on the first floor.
But it’s “Bare Life” that truly stuns.
“In many ways, this exhibition is emotionally overwhelming,” says Eckmann. “For example, in Bombs – a new piece created specifically for this exhibition – Ai visualizes full-scale, hyperrealistic renderings of 43 weapons of mass destruction. The images are frightening but also beautiful.”
The collection of works includes all-new pieces created for the exhibition – such as the wallpaper mural Bombs, just mentioned – as well as some of Ai’s most famous creations, each displaying an insightful understanding of Chinese culture, both ancient and modern. In total, the exhibition serves as a challenging, thought-provoking meditation on human rights in the international community.
“When you step back and consider the purposes for which the bombs were created and see them literally hanging overhead as the wall curves upwards, I think that seductive aesthetic quality makes the bombs all the more appalling,” says Eckmann.
The attention to detail and high regard for the audience shows. In a press release announcing the exhibition’s launch, Ai stated that “the process of selecting the works and curating the show with Sabine Eckmann has been intense, but also precise and meaningful.”
Another of the most arresting pieces can be found in the first portion of the exhibition, dubbed the “Bare Life” Section. Forever Bicycles (2019), one of the site-specific new works, consists of 720 Forever bicycles – an iconic Chinese brand – stacked upon one another to form an archway that visitors are invited to walk through.
The installation serves as an attention-grabbing introduction to the section’s theme, which confronts the global refugee crisis. On the other hand, the “Rupture” Section finds Ai working with historical Chinese artifacts to understand China’s ancient roots and its rise to modernity.
When all is said and done, it’s hard to believe that “Bare Life” marks only the beginning of a new era for the museum – a moment Eckmann believes will prove to be “transformational.”
“Our new galleries will roughly double exhibition space for our outstanding permanent collection, while the dramatic new stainless steel façade, as well as the surrounding park and underground garage, will make the museum more visible and more accessible to the St. Louis community,” she says.
Any director and curator will tell you that capacity, funding and facilities remain vital to any museum – but the contents matter most.
“At the end of the day, this expansion is not just about building new spaces,” says Eckmann. “It’s about establishing the Kemper Art Museum as a site where visitors not only encounter stimulating art but also reconsider who we are as humans and how we respond to the world around us.”
Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, 1 Brookings Drive, St. Louis, 314-935-5000, kemperartmuseum.wustl.edu
SOURCE: Ladue News