Sunday, April 29, 2012


I'm sure I blew your mind with my ruminations on life and vacation in my last post, but today I experienced some mind-blowing of my own at two excellent exhibits at the Jeu de Paume.

The first was an exhibit of Berenice Abbott, who was a photographer in the first half of the 20th century.  She worked in Paris for a few years, mostly in portraiture, but her work really took off when she began capturing images of New York City in the 1930s.  She had a sense that the city was going to change - she is quoted saying that capturing a metropolis is not about the past or the present, but about capturing the "vanishing instant."  Her photographs are a remarkable visual history of both the architecture and the people & places of everyday life.  She also said that when she arrived to New York from Paris, she was bored with portraits - that everyone's faces looked the same.  But that how you can really learn about people is from their buildings.  (This is a not-quite-verbatim line from an article about her in Life magazine in 1938 that was shown at the exhibit).
"Canyon", Berenice Abbott
"Newsstand", Berenice Abbott
"Court of the First Model Tenement", Berenice Abbott
"Manhattan Bridge", Berenice Abbott

Abbott also traveled around the South, taking photos like this one of Colliersville, Tennessee in 1935.
With funding from the WPA, she criss-crossed the city and provided us with some iconic shots of New York.  And while her photos alone are amazing (not to mention that I love that she was a woman doing this in the 1930s), it was also a fantastic juxtaposition to the other exhibit at Jeu de Paume, Ai Weiwei's Entrelacs (which means "interlacing").

Ai Weiwei is a Chinese photographer who, in essence, is not that different from Berenice Abbott.  He takes photos of everyday life in China, everyday places and people.  The difference is that while Berenice Abbott's work was supported by government dollars to capture the life of a city - the good and the bad - Ai Weiwei has ended up a political prisoner of the Chinese government for doing much the same thing.  In 2011, he was arrested and held in prison for several months.  While currently out on bail, he is prohibited from leaving the country. His popular blog was taken offline as well.
"Seven Frames", Ai Weiwei

After the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan that killed approximately 68,000 people, Ai Weiwei took many photographs of the ruins and rubble left behind.  He focused particularly on the schools that had been destroyed in the quake, killing so many children, because of shoddy construction.
Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei helped design and support construction of an arts & cultural center outside Shanghai that also served as his studio.  Weiwei was asked by local government to make this building a reality.  Then, overnight, in early 2011, Chinese government authorities demolished the studio with virtually no warning.

Halfway through demolition - Weiwei was able to arrive in time to take these shots.

But I'm not a political person by nature, and this blog isn't about platforms and causes.  What I found so interesting seeing these two exhibits in the same building on the same day is to see the difference between when capturing life is supported and praised, and when it is criticized and denied.  Sometimes art is art, but sometimes art really is about free speech and freedom more generally.  Living my life in the US, and now France, I realize that we take these things for granted.  Most of Weiwei's photos are just people - people in his life, the homes of his family members and friends, places around China. 
Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei

Look, I can also say that the guy is clearly a little weird, and a lot of his art is the kind that is way beyond my comprehension or interest (a million porcelain sunflower seeds, for instance).  But I get to have my blog, and I wish he was allowed to have one too.

PS Read an interesting interview with Ai Weiwei and Time Magazine here.