World-Renowned Artist Ai Weiwei Comes to SAM in 2025

Today, SAM made a major announcement: In 2025, the Seattle Art Museum will present the first US retrospective in over a decade of the work of Ai Weiwei. Titled Ai, Rebel: The Art and Activism of Ai Weiwei, it will explore over 100 works from across four decades, offering visitors from all over the world a rare opportunity to engage with the celebrated conceptual artist’s wide-ranging body of work. The exhibition will be on view at the Seattle Art Museum in downtown Seattle and is curated by FOONG Ping, SAM Foster Foundation Curator of Chinese Art. This also marks the artist’s first solo exhibition in Seattle.

The news arrived via a co-exclusive by ARTnews and The Seattle Times.

ARTnews highlighted the unique curatorial perspective that FOONG will take: “Unlike many curators who’ve worked with Ai, Foong does not specialize in contemporary art. She mainly works with age-old Chinese works presented by the museum, and she said this moved to her to explore the art history that guides Ai. ‘My intention is to find some language that might describe trends and patterns, the things that have stood the test of time, the things that he thought about in his first decade and are still with him decades on,’ she said.”

And in The Seattle Times, José Carlos Diaz, SAM’s Susan Brotman Deputy Director for Art, called this a “major moment” for the city: “Seattle is due for a major exhibition of his dynamic, large-scale work,” he said. “Ai is a global icon whose work resonates with so many types of audiences; this exhibition will make SAM a destination for locals and visitors alike who will want to engage with his work.”

Exhibitions of Ai Weiwei’s work have brought sold-out crowds around the world, so the museum anticipates high demand and is making preparations for the best visitor experience. To increase access, SAM planned an extended run of six months, beyond its usual exhibition timeframe. Timed ticketing will increase access to the museum and improve flow in the galleries. Ticket release dates will be announced in advance so that visitors can plan ahead. SAM members will have additional opportunities for access, including early access to reserve timeslots, member-only days, and member-exclusive events.

– Rachel Eggers, SAM Associate Director of Public Relations

Photo: Gao Yuan / Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio.

Muse/News: Ceramics Competition, Black History, and Ai’s Memory

SAM News

“Celebrates everything that goes into the work of the performance artist”: For Observer, Dan Duray features Anida Yoeu Ali: Hybrid Skin, Mythical Presence, now on view at the Seattle Asian Art Museum.

On Seattle Met’s list of “Things to Do in Seattle”: Last week’s Saturday University on February 10, which features a lecture and performance exploring the transmission of spiritual knowledge, or ilmu, in East Javanese performing arts.  

Local News

Seattle Refined interviews Aaron Murray for their “artist of the week” series. You can see some of his clay creations at SAM Shop. 

“Otherworldly landscapes and an upside-down volcano”: Another excellent round-up of arts happenings from Crosscut’s Brangien Davis. 

Thanks to Jas Keimig for this “Event Guide to Black History Month 2024” from South Seattle Emerald. Mark your calendars!

“It’s February, which means it’s time to highlight and uplift the rich history, culture, and traditions of Black people in the United States. We even have one extra day this year (Feb. 29, it’s a Leap Year!), which means you have ample time to make your plans…”

Inter/National News

Karen Ho for ARTnews reports on the arrival of “The Great Canadian Pottery Throw Down,” a new reality competition television show for ceramics on CBC guest-judged by actor Seth Rogen. The article mentions another judge, ceramicist Brendan Tang, whose work is in SAM’s collection and on view now in Chronicles of a Global East.

Via Min Chen for Artnet: “Airplane Mode: 7 Artists Who Were Nerds for Aviation.” Yep, Alexander Calder is on the list for his moving sculpture at JFK Airport and his designs for jets.

Jonathan Landreth for the New York Times interviews Ai Weiwei about Zodiac, the artist’s new “graphic memoir.” 

“The idea was to gather things from my memory, like a timeline, and offer mystical stories from China’s past. I explained it as a mix of memory and mythology.”

And Finally

Let’s “watch this” again.

– Rachel Eggers, SAM Associate Director of Public Relations

Photo: Jo Cosme.

Curating Chinese Art for the Here and Now

Curating an art exhibition isn’t a competition—unless you’re a University of Washington student attending the School of Art + Art History + Design’s upper-level seminar, Exhibiting Chinese Art, taught by FOONG Ping, SAM’s Foster Foundation Curator of Chinese Art.

Pivoting from in-person to virtual learning, FOONG thought a little friendly competition would engage her students. She split them into teams and assigned three seemingly unrelated artworks by contemporary Chinese artists for them to research. Each team created a cohesive and imaginative exhibition framework to display the three works.

“I wanted to challenge my students, and they really impressed me,” says FOONG. “This exhibition has been in the works for a long time, but a few of their ideas have since been incorporated into the show. Beyond the Mountain wouldn’t be what it is today without their insights.”

Opening this July, Beyond the Mountain: Contemporary Chinese Artists on the Classical Forms is the latest special exhibition to open at the renovated and reimagined Seattle Asian Art Museum. Introducing Chinese artists never before exhibited at SAM as well as drawing from the museum’s collection, the exhibition sees artistic themes of the past revitalized. It explores age-old subjects such as Chinese ink painting, proverbs, and landscapes while reflecting upon current or recent events—from the global language of street protests to escape in a time of contagion. Together, the artists contemplate the societal toll of modernity and globalization as well as the impact of humans on the natural world.

One of the works FOONG is most excited to see back on view is Ai Weiwei’s Colored Vases (2010). An acclaimed contemporary artist and outspoken dissident, Ai dipped nine earthenware vases into buckets of industrial paint and then left them to dry. In covering the surface of these purportedly ancient artifacts with bright new paint, Ai suggests that our perceptions of authenticity are a status quo that might be challenged. Much like history, he says, the vases are “no longer visible, but are still there.”

Another highlight are two videos by Yang Yongliang. From afar, these large-scale projections look like classical ink paintings—until you realize that they are actually digital pastiche of video and photography where construction cranes and other modern interventions disturb the majestical natural scene.

“The exhibition is about this moment in our lives,” says FOONG. “These Chinese artists engage with classical Chinese themes, but they speak to everyone.”


Read below for a short interview with exhibition curator FOONG Ping on visitors can expect to experience in the galleries.

SAM: What artwork are you most excited for audiences to see and interact with in the galleries?

FOONG Ping: With this exhibition, I’m introducing Seattleites to an artist new to us: Lam Tung Pang. He has created a site-specific installation in one of our galleries that I really think is going to blow people’s minds. It’s titled The Great Escape and responds directly to his experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic in Hong Kong. To escape the stress of the 2020 lockdown, Pang started reading kids’ books and also became fascinated with the master of escape, Harry Houdini. The artwork reflects this specific time in our lives and his thinking about the ways we might free ourselves from constraints—mental & physical—that bind us. I’m confident that the piece goes beyond expectations when people think about Chinese art.

SAM: You’ve described this exhibition as both traditional and modern Chinese artistic forms. How is this seen throughout the exhibition?

FP: Everyone has certain stereotypes about Chinese art—including Chinese folks! Although there are common Chinese artistic elements of ink-brush painting and images of landscape, Beyond the Mountain is so much more than that. The artists in this exhibition have taken these identifiable ideas from Chinese art and transformed them for a modern audience. This exhibition is intentionally small and precise, so visitors can deeply explore each artwork’s clear and distinct voice.

SAM: What message do you want audiences to take away from this exhibition?

FP: I want audiences to understand the legacies of Chinese art, language, and culture and how these legacies remain incredibly relevant today. No matter a visitor’s background, Beyond the Mountain reveals the existence of a global common language, where everyone can reflect on Chinese history and make a connection to their own experiences.

– Lily Hansen, SAM Marketing Content Creator

Segments of this article first appeared in the July and October 2022 editions of SAM Magazine and has been edited for our online readers. Become a SAM member today to receive our quarterly magazine delivered directly to your mailbox and other exclusive member perks.

Images: Alborz Kamalizad & Natali Wiseman.

Object of the Week: Round-corner wood-hinged cabinet

“Why are we drawn to a work of art?” is an interesting question, but it’s also a clumsy one that is too broad to tell us much. “Why are you drawn to a work of art?” That might get us somewhere. What about an artwork compels you, reader, to pull out your phone for a selfie, or take down a note with the artist’s name, or fix an image of it in your head, so you can tell your friends about it later? What makes it resonate with you, in thought or emotion? One person might respond to the look of a piece—qualities like exceptional craftsmanship, a vision of beauty, or a herculean effort of construction—while another cares most about the conceptual content, the artwork’s associations with history, the way it offers timely social commentary, or how it prompts imagination.

Here’s some proof that art rocks: Art, and readings of art, are as diverse as people. Individual perspective colors our experience of art, as it does the rest of life. What we’re looking for, we can find. And different folks might see a wide range of facets to the exact same piece.

SAM’s Round-corner wood-hinged cabinets welcome visitors to the first gallery of Tabaimo: Utsutsushi Utsushi. That they are a nearly identical pair, “a set of twins,” fascinated artist-curator Tabaimo, who is interested in how we read multiples. Even though our eyes see and our brains understand that there are two, we can still experience a sense of confusion because the boundary between them is slippery.

The cabinets date to the 16th century, when they were fashioned from a precious wood called huanghuali. The rich marbling of the wood grain acts as a natural ornament for the tall, quietly stunning single-panel doors. While the beauty of the wood itself takes center stage on the panels, the difficult method of construction and finely carved trim provided plenty opportunity for artisans to strut their stuff, and strut they did, notably in the softly rounded upper corners for which the cabinets are titled.

These were high-ticket items, reserved for the court and elite classes. They acted as status symbols, speaking wealth and prestige over their owners, and also fulfilled the most basic of utilitarian functions, as storage for books, scrolls and other scholar’s accoutrements. Grand wardrobe cabinets like these took the place of closets in traditional Chinese homes, and when you picture a closet in your head, and then you look at these cabinets, you understand why. They looked really good while they were hiding stuff.

Because huanghuali wood was a choice material during an important period in the making of Chinese furniture, it still carries an association with that time and culture, kind of like how marble sculpture can bring to mind Golden Age Greece for those of us familiar with the European art tradition. Tabaimo is not the first artist to pick up the historical associations of huanghuali wood and bring them into a conversation about contemporary ideas. Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei has used huanghuali wood in spherical constructions like LACMA’s Untitled, Divine Proportion that are boldly un-utilitarian, contrasting the storied functional use of huanghuali.

Don’t miss Tabaimo’s playful installation at the Asian Art Museum that animates these cabinets with the artist’s unique vision, and remember to bring your perspective to the equation.

–Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Image: Round-corner wood-hinged cabinet (gui), 16th century, Chinese, huanghuali wood, 72 x 37 x 20 in. Seattle Art Museum, Sarah Ferris Fuller Memorial Collection and an anonymous donor, 89.20.1 and 89.20.2, Photo: Paul Macapia.

Object of the Week: Colored Vases

“An artist can only raise new questions and offer insight into social change after reflecting on the feelings of the time. I don’t see art as a highly aesthetic practice…Rather than thinking of my projects as art, they attempt to introduce a new condition, a new means of expression, or a new method of communicating. If these possibilities didn’t exist, I wouldn’t feel the need to be an artist.” –Ai Weiwei1

“At different times I’ve worked in different mediums. For me, the variation is not an artistic judgment, but a necessary choice. It’s just as normal to eat with chopsticks, as it is to eat with forks or hands. Different circumstances call for different tools. I try to express ideas with the most appropriate available materials and forms.” –Ai Weiwei2

“Making choices is how the artist comes to understand himself. These choices are correlated to one’s spiritual predicament, and the goal is a return to the self, the pursuit of spiritual values, and the summoning of spirits. These choices are inherently philosophical.” –Ai Weiwei3

Ai Weiwei is super active in the world of contemporary art, posting to his Instagram, posing as a drowned Syrian refugeedecorating Berlin’s Konzerthaus with 14,000 life jackets. Not all of the commentary about him is positive, and I’m sure that’s as he would like it. He’s stated in the past that he desires uneasiness; that he deliberately moves away from the self-indulgent comfort of creating things to use his skills or to get praise. He wants to think critically and to act on his convictions. He wants to unsettle and to motivate. Definitely from his own perspective, he is a conceptual artist, a political activist, and an advocate for self-discovery.

Ai’s art still depends—in a really essential way—on its visual impact. The striking visuals he’s able to concoct are the rhetoric he uses to promote his provocative agenda. He may not think of art as a “highly aesthetic practice,” but the work speaks for itself. Just think of his Sunflower Seeds. The work is less than compelling as a printed phrase: “One hundred million hand-sculpted, hand-painted porcelain beads, made to look like sunflower seeds.” As a realized artwork, it captivated people.

Ai thinks about the forms as a means to an end—his end is pointing others to self-consciousness, sparking in us a challenge to accepted systems of belief, provoking critical responses and inspiring action—but they’re still necessary means. They are his way of communicating. He can’t even be sure that his art will communicate what he wants it to do. All he can be sure of is that viewers will experience the physical artwork. Many of us who look at his works will come away with different conclusions; such is the open-endedness of art, politically-driven or otherwise. All we have is the thing, so I say, let’s look closely at it.

SAM’s one work by Ai Weiwei, Colored Vases, is on view at the Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park. It delivers what it promises. Nine ceramic vases are arranged in a pattern much like a bowling pin setup—there are three rows, with four vases in the back row, three in the middle row, and two in the front row—only the headpin is missing. The artist has applied a base coat of industrial paint in a bold hue—such as yellow, pink, lime green, or plum—to each vase. A second color in high contrast to the base layer covers the lips and shoulder of the vase, then drips down the body. Some vases have long drips like the tendrils of a plant, while others are shorter, like polychrome stalactites. The paint drips are irregular, and they seem natural.

Contrast is especially important to this work: there’s contrast between the traditional form of the ceramic vases and the bright and contemporary paint colors applied to them; contrast between the two colors on one vase, and contrast in the range of colors among the whole group; contrast between the normally grainy texture of a ceramic pot and the flatness of industrial paint. There’s probably contrast, too, between what Ai Weiwei thought of and what you take away.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Sources:

“Reconsidering Reality: An Interview with Ai Weiwei.” In Ai Weiwei: According to What? Edited by Deborah E. Horowitz. Prestel Verlag: Munich, London and New York, 2012. Published in conjunction with the exhibition of the same name, organized by the Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, in association with the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., and displayed at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C., October 7, 2012-February 24, 2013; the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis, Indiana, April 5-July 28, 2013; Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Ontario, August 31-October 27, 2013; Pérez Art Museum Miami, Miami, Florida, November 28, 2013-March 16, 2014; and Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York, April 18-August 10, 2014.

“Making Choices.” Translated by Philip Tinari, from The Grey Book, November, 1997. Reproduced in Ai Weiwei. Phaidon Press: New York, 2009.


i. According to What, 38
ii. According to What, 39
iii. Ai Weiwei, “Making Choices,” 128

Image: Colored Vases, 2010, Ai Weiwei (Chinese, born 1957), ceramic with industrial paint, approx. 17 x 22 in. each. Seattle Art Museum, Purchased with funds from the Estate of Robert M. Shields, 2013.33, Photo: Nathaniel Willson.

Donate Legos to Ai Weiwei

We have a unique opportunity to help contemporary Chinese artist/dissident Ai Weiwei create commissioned artworks that will be a part of an Australian exhibition starting this month. How can we help him, you might be thinking? By sharing our LEGOs!

The Danish toy company LEGO refused Ai Weiwei Studio’s request for a bulk order of LEGOs to create artwork to be shown at the National Gallery of Victoria as “they cannot approve the use of Legos for political works.” This triggered a flood of responses on social media criticizing LEGO for “censorship and discrimination” by refusing Ai’s order. Since then, thousands of anonymous supporters have offered to donate their used LEGOs to Ai.

The tiny toy bricks Ai receives will be part of two works for an exhibition titled Andy Warhol / Ai Weiwei, which will explore the concept of freedom of speech and be on view through April 24, 2016 at the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia. According to The New York Times, one piece will re-envision his 1995 photo triptych “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn,” and the other will feature 20 LEGO portraits of Australian proponents of Internet freedom and human rights.

BMW Car LEGO Collection Point at the Asian Art Museum

To participate in this site-specific project and show our support, the Seattle Art Museum has signed up as an official Lego collection point for local and visiting art enthusiasts to drop LEGO bricks through the sunroofs of a secondhand BMW. Our collection point is parked right in front of the Asian Art Museum, and the roof will be open during museum open hours now through January 10, 2016.

Want to check out some of Weiwei’s work in person? Visit his installation Colored Vases, Ai’s first work acquired by the SAM, at the Asian Art Museum.

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