'They Love Freedom': Ai Weiwei On His Lego Portraits Of Fellow Activists

Jun 27, 2017
Originally published on June 28, 2017 9:56 am

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has had several confrontations with Chinese authorities. (He was once beaten so badly by police that he had to have brain surgery.) Through it all, Ai continued to make art, and his art continued to travel the world, sometimes without him.

That's what happened with Trace, a series of Lego portraits Ai created while under house arrest. The artworks, which depict activists and political prisoners from around the world, were first shown at the former prison on San Francisco's Alcatraz Island in 2014, and nearly a million people saw them there. But at the time, Ai was still under house arrest and couldn't travel to the exhibition.

Now, the artist has his passport back, and he was able to attend a new show of those portraits which opens Wednesday at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C. NPR was there for his first look at Trace in a gallery setting:

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A few years ago, the artist Ai Weiwei made Lego portraits of activists and political prisoners from around the world. They were on display at Alcatraz. At the time, Ai Weiwei was under house arrest in China and he couldn't travel to the historic prison to see them. He has his passport back now, so he came here to Washington to attend a new show of those portraits at the Hirshhorn Museum. NPR's Elizabeth Blair went with him.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Ai Weiwei documents everything. As soon as he walks in the gallery, he pulls out his iPhone and starts Instagramming his own work.

AI WEIWEI: When I had the chance to make this show, I'm still in self - detention myself.

BLAIR: Ai Weiwei has had several confrontations with Chinese authorities. Once he was beaten so badly by police he had to have brain surgery. He was under house arrest in 2011 when his friend and art dealer Cheryl Haines went to visit him in Beijing to find out what she could do to support him.

CHERYL HAINES: His answer was merely make my work available to a broader audience.

BLAIR: It was Haines and her organization FOR-SITE that worked with Ai Weiwei long-distance to create the installation at Alcatraz, a collection of portraits of political prisoners and free speech activists.

HAINES: In depicting them, it was very difficult in some cases to find any imagery. We had to go online. And a lot of the photographs of these people were very pixelated.

BLAIR: Ai Weiwei got the idea to capture that pixelated feel of the images using Legos.

AI: So I start to borrow my son's Lego to construct some images.

BLAIR: Haines had Lego bricks sent to Ai Weiwei's studio in China.

HAINES: I actually had to carry quite a lot of them in suitcases with me because somehow getting the Legos shipped to Beijing from the factory seemed incredibly complicated.

BLAIR: After several trips back and forth, Ai Weiwei sent digital designs for the portraits to Haines in San Francisco, where they were assembled by a team of volunteers. The show opened at Alcatraz in 2014. Nearly a million people attended. Now the portraits are at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington and Ai Weiwei can finally walk through the door.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You ready to go upstairs?

AI: I'm all ready. You just have to lead me.

BLAIR: How you feeling about seeing this for the first time?

AI: It's like sometimes I feel like a newly born baby. Everything's so fresh.

BLAIR: The art that Ai Weiwei is coming to fresh is spread out on the floor. One hundred and seventy-six portraits arranged in groups, almost like vibrantly colored quilts. The people in them are from all over the world - Saudi Arabia, Russia, Iran, the United States, China and elsewhere. Each of them have been detained, exiled or sought political asylum.

AI: They lost their freedom because they love freedom. They love freedom for other people and they love freedom for their nation.

BLAIR: Ai Weiwei sees it as his responsibility to introduce them and their struggles for freedom to the rest of the world. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.