Columbia College Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Photography typically focuses on new and emerging artists. But its next exhibition, which runs April 13 through July 2, will take the sometimes overlooked South Loop art space in a different and more high-profile direction.

‘#AiWeiwei’
When: April 13-July 2
Where: Museum of Contemporary Photography, Columbia College Chicago, 600 S. Michigan
Admission: free
Info: mocp.org

The show will highlight the photographic work of Ai Weiwei, 59, one of the best-known and most controversial of today’s Chinese artists. “We rarely work with established artists,” said executive director Natasha Egan said, “so that’s new for us. In some ways, it’s like us deciding to do a blockbuster show.”

Although the museum didn’t plan it that way, it turns out the offering will be Ai’s first solo exhibition of any kind in Chicago – a distinction that is likely to only heighten the attention it receives.

“I would expect that they are going to have a great turnout,” said Orianna Cacchione, a curatorial fellow in contemporary East Asian art at the Art Institute of Chicago, noting that London’s Royal Academy had to extend its hours for the artist’s 2015 show there because of the large crowds.

The MOCP’s highest attendance to date for one of its exhibitions has been 17,000 people. “So, I think we’re going go above that, it’s fair to say,” Egan said.

In addition to a resume that includes artist, filmmaker, curator and architect, Ai is a political activist whose outspokenness on human rights led to him being detained in 2011 by the Chinese authorities for 81 days without formal charges – drawing international attention.

“He’s very controversial in China,” Cacchione said. “There are a lot of artists who respect what he is doing and think he is extremely important and there are other artists, who for both personal and political reasons, think that he is definitely overhyped.”

Ai is most widely recognized for his massive installations, such as “Sunflower Seeds” (2010), shown in London’s Tate Modern, a work that suggested multiple meanings, including allusions to the Cultural Revolution. Hand-crafted over two-and-one-half years by 1,600 artisans in the Chinese town of Jingdezhen, it consisted of 100 million porcelain seeds spread about 5 inches deep across the 1,000-square-yard floor of the museum’s Turbine Hall.

Ai Weiwei, “New York Photographs, 1983-1993, Williamsburg, Brooklyn. | Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio

Even though photography has been a constant in Ai’s daily life, Egan said, he was not considered a photographic or image-based artist. But that has changed because of the 2010 publication of a book of 1983-1993 photographs he made while living in New York and a flurry of subsequent exhibitions that have focused on his work in the medium.

One of those shows, which ran at the Camera gallery in Turin, Italy beginning in 2016, was organized by Davide Quadrio, an independent curator and Asian specialist whom Egan has worked with previously.

In August, she approached Ai’s studio in Berlin, where he moved in 2015, with the idea of bringing that exhibition to Chicago. The artist made clear that that he doesn’t tour any of his shows, but he said he would be interested in curating something specifically for MOCP.

Ai’s studio built an architectural model of the museum’s unconventional three-story space and he designed an exhibition to fit it with a few tweaks here and there from Egan. On view will be two videos and around 44,000 still images, some seen for the first time in the United States, such as “Photographs of Surveillance” (2010-2015). While 400 or so of his early photographs of New York and Beijing will be shown in frames on the wall, the rest will be presented in less conventional formats.

“Relating to Refugees” (2015-16), for example, will cover three walls on the museum’s main first-floor gallery and will appear as gridded wallpaper or a kind of giant contact sheet with 16,276 tiny images from that artist’s visits to more 40 Mediterranean refugee camps in dozens of countries.

Ai Weiwei, “Illumination,” 2009, color photograph. | Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio

“Illumination” (2009), a much-reproduced selfie that Ai took of himself in a mirrored hotel elevator in Chengdu, China, as he was being escorted away after an arrest in 2009, will be shown as a 20-by-20-foot mural.

All 7,677 photographs that Ai posted on his popular blog from 2006 through 2009, when Chinese authorities shut it down, will be presented in slide shows on 12 monitors as part of a work titled “258 Fake” (2011).

People attending this exhibition should not expect pristine, aesthetically pleasing photos in the vein of Ansel Adams. Instead, Egan said, these images illustrate the power of images as vehicles of social activism and citizen journalism in today’s dramatically transformed world of selfies and digital photography.

“The Ai Weiwei show,” Egan said, “what I like about it is that a lot of the pictures are really stupid. There are a lot of pictures of Ai Weiwei eating his dinner. But there’s a relevance to who he is, who he is as an activist and who he speaks for.”

Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.