By Christine Kearney
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A photography exhibit offering glimpses of Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei's time spent living in New York in the 1980s and early 1990s opened on Wednesday, marking the first major museum exhibit of his work since his release from detention.
The artist, whose detention in April in China ignited an international uproar after his family said allegations of economic crimes against him were an excuse to silence his criticism of contemporary China, did not attend the exhibit. Beijing has demanded Ai pay $1.85 million in taxes and fines.
Some in the art world have wondered if the market value of Ai's work might rise with his newfound global fame as a symbol of China's tight grip on dissent, which has seen the detention and arrest of dozens of rights activists and dissidents.
The answer seems to be a likely yes, for now, but the exhibit at The Asia Society Museum did not place any values on Ai's work and instead focused on his art.
Organizers said the timing of the exhibit showing 227 black and white photographs taken by Ai, a conceptual artist known for his sculptures and installations, was purely coincidental with his release from two month's detention last week.
The exhibition, which runs until August 14, shows photographs by the now bearded, burly artist from 1983 to 1993 before he found fame for helping design the Bird's Nest stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games and for his investigative activities into children who died in shoddy buildings in Sichuan's earthquake in 2008.
"If anything he would see this as a bit of a homecoming. He hasn't had a major show in a museum here in New York City," said Asia Society Museum Director Melissa Chiu, adding the exhibit showed "his time here in New York helped him to think about life as an artist in a different way."
EAST VILLAGE AI
The exhibit captures self-portraits of a young Ai and seminal Chinese artists in their earlier days such as composer Tan Dun, Chinese director Chen Kaige who directed films such as "Farewell My Concubine" and artist Xu Bing, as well as other prominent figures such as writer Allen Ginsberg.
It also offers glimpses of Ai's early fascination with protest power, including capturing the Tompkins Square Park riot in 1988 in New York City's East Village, a neighborhood that, at the time, was home to many artists.
The exhibit marks the first time the photographs, chosen by Ai from an archive of 10,000, have traveled outside China after first being shown in Beijing in 2009. "There are lots of ideas in this exhibit that we see today in his work and the impact of his time in New York," said Chiu.
"There are these kinds of alignments that show up today from his understanding of the power of social protest, which was going on in the Lower East Side, to the idea of an artistic community which he actually transferred to China," she said.
Organizers had been in discussion with Ai a year ago in preparation for the exhibition, but when he was arrested in April, "we weren't certain it could go forward, but we did manage to get the photographs from China," said Chiu. "Now are lucky to have the exhibition after his release."
The photographs are not for sale, but there is little doubt gallery owners will be watching to see if stronger interest develops in Ai's work because of his detention in China.
"The prices will most certainly spike," Richard Vine, senior editor for Asia at Art in America magazine, told Reuters ahead of the show.
"He's gone from being one among many interesting artists in China, to being seen as the leading figure. That kind of press attention, and the difficulty now of getting new pieces, would only lead to increased prices."
But Chiu noted that "market value is not always the same thing as fame and celebrity. It sometimes helps but there is not the same correlation...whether it (fame) contributes to the value of his artwork is yet to be determined."
(Additional reporting by Chris Michaud, editing by Bob Tourtellotte)