Ai Weiwei’s Jews: Pictures from an Exhibition

Ai Weiwei’s Jews: Pictures from an Exhibition

On the weekends, I like to get away from work. One of the places where I like to do that is museums. And what better one to visit, if you’re looking to avoid Jews (for me, that’s my job; not anti-semitism), than the Asia Society? Surely there’d be nothing on view there that would make me think of writing, deadlines and blogging about Jews–that is, work.

Too bad for me. The current Ai Weiwei exhibit, subtitled "New York Photographs, 1983-1993," is full of Jews. Literally. The Chinese artist–recently released from Chinese prison, ostenisbly for not paying taxes, but obviously for being an outspoken dissident–appears to have had a quiet fascination with Jews when he took those photographs. He was only 26 when he started taking those shots, but throughout the decade there’s consistent glimpses of Jews.

Most glaring is Allen Ginsberg. Like the revered Jewish poet, Weiwei is himself a writer. His father is one of China’s greatest 20th century poets, and Weiwei has written prose and poetry himself. That explains the relationship, I’m guessing, but there’s other Jews on view as well: Robert Frank is there, another Jewish artist, whose seminal photographic essay "The Americans," celebrated its 50th anniversary last year.

You might be thinking: But can’t Weiwei’s bond with these men simply be over art? What there’s to suggest he cares about them as Jews? It’s a good point, but there’s another striking photograph that’s got nothing to do with famous artists, and everything to do with Jews. It’s a photograph with a title like "A Jewish Family in Brooklyn" (dont’ quote me on the title; I’m pulling this from memory). And it features, well, a Jewish family from Brooklyn.

The couple is Orthodox, the man with a thick velvet kippot and his wife in a long skirt and sleeves. Their child’s nearby. They’re all on the Brooklyn waterfront looking over onto the Manhattan skyline. Eerily, the Twin Towers hover behind.

When I saw the picture, I thought, Now isn’t this was the quintessential Jewish American immigrant experience. This was Augie March in images: young Jews on the cusp of the big city, but not quite in it; strivers looking out from the shore and dreaming of what it must mean to make it in America.

I can imagine how Weiwei–when he had taken that photograph, still an unkonwn striver himself–might have thought something similar. For a moment, his Chinese experience must have felt a lot like the Jewish one, and probably vice versa.

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