shu and joe

Ai Wei Wei Back in the Day

Published on December 26, 2008


Williamsburg, Brooklyn. 1983


Flea Market at Union Square. 1987


Chen Kaige. 1985

Before he was a superstar artist and architect, Ai Wei Wei spent ten years in New York City, photographing his friends and capturing everything he saw.

Ai Weiwei on his NYC photos:

These photos were taken between 1983 and 1994 during the decade I spent living in New York before returning to Beijing. At that time, I didn’t really have anything to do. I was just hanging out, whiling away my time everyday by taking pictures of the people I met, places I went, my friends, my neighborhood, the street and the city.

In a flash twenty years have past, and the New York I knew no longer exists. The appearance of the East Village has totally changed, and many of the people in my photographs are no longer in this world. I took these photos casually, and most of my subjects probably don’t even realize that they are in them. Today, looking back on the past, I can see that these photographs are not true anymore. After all, any reality is just a fact of change – an unconfirmed moment in the slow march of time. The present always surpasses the past, and the future will not care about today.

What drives me to organize and publish these photographs is not nostalgia, for I believe that past occurrences do not matter much. We are not destined to meet those whom we’ve met, and humans are by nature lonely. Rather, the photos themselves are concrete objects that form a kind of orderly arrangement despite their free-floating nature as disassociated images on photo paper. The specific people and things involved, including my own past, are not important anymore.

Life in the past fifty years has been much like a falling leaf with no goal or direction. In the end, however, the leaf will land in some corner. The images’ appearance and order are much like this. They are disorganized, but paths of thought appear that seem most clear when the photos are all mixed up.

Today, I still always have a camera in my hand, accustomed as I am to the click of the shutter. What I should explain though, is that I am not interested in photography, and don’t really care about the subjects of my photos. In the end, they are part of a different reality than that of my own existence. Every time I look at these photographs, I always discover that there is more strangeness in them than familiarity.

A selection of Ai Wei Wei’s photos are being exhibited at Three Shadows in Beijing through April 2009.

All images courtesy of Three Shadow Photography, Beijing

Filed under: Beijing, China, NYC, Photography
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