Left: Artist Ai Weiwei with dealer Mary Boone. Right: Artist Liu Xiaodong. (All photos: David Velasco)

Hours before Ai Weiwei’s opening last Saturday at Mary Boone, some wondered: Who exactly would be in attendance? I found myself hoping that Ai would jet in a bevy of Chinese compatriots, in a reprise of his 2007 Documenta piece. Perhaps he would stow them on cots behind the gallery’s reception desk or between catalogues raisonnés on Mary Boone’s shelves? In the end, this didn’t come to pass, though a large percentage of the well-wishers who turned up had ties to the Chinese and Chinese-expat art scene. Indeed, many were direct or indirect products of Ai’s influence, like Zhang Huan, who was smoking outside the gallery entrance, wearing something like a bad-boy do-rag. If Marina Abramovic has taken to calling herself the “grandmother of performance art,” Ai is more than entitled to claim a similar rank in the genealogy of Chinese contemporary art.

“Many of us are moving back to China,” said New York–based artist Cui Fei soon after my arrival, as she surveyed her fellow Chinese-expat artists mingling in the entrance room. Why? “It’s cheaper there. And more opportunities. Unless you’re Xu Bing or Cai Guo-Qiang, many of us get overlooked in New York.” As we rounded the corner into the main space, we encountered the warm red glow of Ai’s romantic pičce de resistance, parked smack in the center of the room: a red multitiered chandelier—a form he’s played with previously—this time laid on its side to resemble a squat cornucopia. The two-story-high sculpture is composed of lightbulbs mounted on a framework of brass hoops, lined with sections of vermilion beads.

“There were beads everywhere this morning,” bemoaned gallery director Ron Warren. “I spent all day picking up beads and vacuuming in corners. They even got into the bathroom—don’t ask me how they got there.” According to associate director James Salomon, at least twenty-five people each worked four sixteen-hour days, handling the installation and hand-stringing the beads that made up the chandelier. Add to that a minor mutiny over food—by the second day, the gallery’s usual Bottino take-out lunches met with a plea from the Beijing team: “Can we please get Chinese food instead?”—and the installation process surely didn’t go down as one of the easiest in Chelsea’s history.

Left: Artist Zhang Huan. Right: Laurie Anderson, Lou Reed, and architect Steven Holl.

It does, however, make the record as Ai’s first major solo show of new works in New York—notable given both his wide-ranging influence in China and his extended sojourn in New York in the 1980s (which Ai agreed was “another world” compared with the New York of here and now). With the openings of this show and the one by Liu Xiaodong at Boone’s uptown site, one might say this week inaugurated Boone’s move toward contemporary Chinese art, though Boone herself by no means let on to having any of Chelsea’s recent colonialist impulses vis-ŕ-vis the East: “I don’t care what country they come from, I just want to show great artists,” she said. Karen Smith, the curator for both shows, was initially asked to put together a group exhibition but concluded that “it wasn’t quite time yet. Many of the artists wouldn’t want to show with each other; they were all doing very different things. They wouldn’t see their work sharing space.”

Ai certainly isn’t one to avoid confrontation—at least with the government. After collaborating with Herzog & de Meuron on their Olympic stadium, he has recently made headlines for criticizing the one-party state’s “disgusting” political conditions and vowing to be absent from the Olympic’s opening ceremonies. According to Warren, when Ai was asked about his boycott after his talk at the China Institute the night before, he said, somewhat circumspectly: “It’s not a boycott. I have no interest in sports. I just design the building. Why would anyone who designed the toilets comment on the Olympics?”

Left: Curator Karen Smith. Right: doArt China's Mia Jin, Lu Qing, and Brooklyn Rail publisher Phong Bui.

Ai, it becomes clear, is occasionally given to epigrammatic, sometimes mysterious responses. When he withholds, it seems to come not from a desire to weave an inscrutable veil, but more from a playful sense that his words will never be quite adequate—an endearing quality in an eminent Chinese artist whose frame and demeanor recall Beijing Opera’s Guan Gong crossed with Danny DeVito. When Ai asked me to photograph him and Boone in front of his glowing red chandelier, his camera was set to black-and-white. Was he sure he wanted this setting? “Yes. I don’t like colors,” he claimed. “I don’t like music, and I don’t like color.” Even Ai’s given name is rather odd; it might best be translated as “Not Yet Not Yet”—unusual even in a nation of people with names that seem poetic by Western standards. How did he get his name? He didn’t know—or if he did, he didn’t quite let on. “I think it has something to do with my father’s hard times,” he said, alluding perhaps to poet Ai Qing’s days in a Communist labor camp.

“He certainly keeps a mystery about him,” said Warren, over dinner. Held at Bottino, the event was a cozy backroom affair attended by the likes of artist Terence Koh (in a fur coat the size of two small bears) and Sarina Tang, a Beijing- and New York–based curator and director of Currents, a nonprofit art and music space just outside the 798 district in Beijing. I asked Ai about his newer projects; word has it that Ai, with Herzog & de Meuron, is supervising one hundred architects who will design an entirely new residential district in Mongolia. Ai said that it’s a supermodern development for the “three hundred hundred-millionaires” now in that country and also that the unifying factor will be disparity. “If there are three different designs, that’s weird. But with a hundred different designs, it will be unified.”

As dinner wound down, and the usual postmeal patter of conversation replaced the clanking of silverware, Ai and Boone shared a silent exchange with each other from across the room, one that went largely unnoticed in the midst of the mingling. They locked eyes and raised their glasses to each other. It was a good long minute, as if they were drinking to the fact that Mr. Not Yet Not Yet’s moment in New York is finally coming to pass.

Dawn Chan

Left: Artist David Salle with Susan Kappa. Right: France Pepper, director of arts and culture at China Institute.

Left: Ni Zheng, artist Yu Hong, and Wang Huiyun. Right: Artist John Ahearn.

Left: Brooklyn Museum deputy director Charles Desmarais with Kitty Morgan, executive editor of Better Homes and Gardens. Right: Artist Hung Liu.