One of China’s most provocative living artists, Ai Weiwei (b. Beijing, 1957) has spent nearly four decades exploring the relationships between art, society, and individual experience. His work, as prolific as it is eclectic, encompasses a wide range of media, including sculpture, installation, photography, film, painting, and architecture. Ai Weiwei has sought to incite change through his art since the late 1970s, and as his work has developed, he has become increasingly committed to his guiding principle of promoting human rights and freedom of expression for all.
A collaborative artist project, Ai Weiwei: Trace at Hirshhorn features the East Coast debut of the monumental installation Trace, which portrays individuals from around the world whom the artist and various human rights groups consider to be activists, prisoners of conscience, and advocates of free speech. Each of these 176 portraits comprises thousands of plastic LEGO® bricks, assembled by hand and laid out on the floor. The work foregrounds Ai Weiwei’s own experiences of incarceration, interrogation, and surveillance. In 2011, he was detained by the Chinese government for eighty-one days and then prohibited from traveling abroad until 2015. In 2012, the Hirshhorn opened Ai’s first major US retrospective exhibition, Ai Weiwei: According to What?, which he was unable to attend.
Originally commissioned in 2014, Trace first opened as part of @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz, a site-specific takeover of the former Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary in San Francisco, and a collaboration between the nonprofit FOR-SITE Foundation, the National Park Service, and the Golden Gate Park Conservancy.
Like Ai Weiwei, the individuals represented in Trace have been detained, exiled, or have sought political asylum because of their actions, beliefs, or affiliations. The subjects were chosen by Ai Weiwei and reflect his response to information provided by Amnesty International and other human rights organizations, as well as his own independent research. Trace includes individuals from more than thirty countries, the majority of whom are from Asia and the Middle East, reflecting Ai’s familiarity with the region. The full list can be found on FOR-SITE’s website.
To complement the display of Trace at the Hirshhorn, Ai Weiwei has created a new 360-degree wallpaper installation entitled The Plain Version of the Animal That Looks Like a Llama but Is Really an Alpaca. At first glance, the repeating graphic pattern looks merely decorative, but a closer inspection reveals surveillance cameras, handcuffs, and Twitter bird logos, which allude to Ai Weiwei’s tweets challenging authority. Together, both massive works span nearly 700 linear feet around the Hirshhorn’s second floor Outer Ring galleries.
Ai Weiwei joins the Hirshhorn’s 2017–18 recognition of a diverse group of international contemporary artists whose work reflects the intersection of history, politics, and culture—including Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, German artist Markus Lüpertz, Swiss artist Nicolas Party, and American artists Yoko Ono, Theaster Gates, and Mark Bradford.
Trace will be joined by a new work—a monumental wallpaper installation called The Plain Version of the Animal that Looks Like a Llama but is Really an Alpaca. The intricate graphic is a lavish, rococo print of Twitter birds, surveillance cameras, handcuffs, chains, and alpacas, images of both expression and control. It will span the continuous 700-foot perimeter of the exhibition’s exterior wall. On view near the exhibition entrance will be The Animal that Looks Like a Llama but is Really an Alpaca, a gold graphic wall treatment that uses similar imagery but employs lavish color to create a tromp l’oeil effect. Those who look closely will be rewarded with an image of Ai Weiwei himself hidden within the pattern.
LEGO® is a trademark of the LEGO Group, which does not sponsor, authorize, or endorse this program.
Ai Weiwei: Trace at Hirshhorn has been made possible through generous support from the Sidney E. Frank Foundation, Peggy and Ralph Burnet, and Ken Grossinger and Micheline Klagsbrun. The Museum received additional funding from the Hirshhorn International Council and the Hirshhorn Collectors’ Council.