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Large-scale LEGO installation "Trace" and 700-foot graphic works by Ai Weiwei debut at the Hirshhorn
Ai Weiwei, installation view of Ai Weiwei: Trace at Hirshhorn at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 2017. Photo: Cathy Carver.

WASHINGTON, DC.- The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden is presenting “Ai Weiwei: Trace at Hirshhorn,” a solo project by Ai Weiwei featuring new and recent works by the renowned Chinese artist June 28–Jan. 1, 2018. The presentation marks the East Coast debut of “Trace,” one of the artist’s most significant U.S. installations in recent years, and features the addition of two graphic wallpapers to accompany the work, one never before seen. Together, the massive installation spans 700 feet around the entirety of the museum’s second-floor galleries, responding to the building’s unique circular architecture.

“Trace” features 176 portraits of people around the world whom the artist considers activists, prisoners of conscience or advocates of free speech. Each of the portraits is made of thousands of plastic LEGO bricks, assembled by hand and laid out on the floor. Originally commissioned in 2014, “Trace” first opened as a site-specific installation at the former Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary in San Francisco, a collaboration between the nonprofit FOR-SITE Foundation, the National Park Service and the Golden Gate Park Conservancy. It drew nearly 1 million visitors.

“Trace” is shaped by Ai’s own experiences: In 2011, he was incarcerated, interrogated and kept under surveillance by the Chinese government for 81 days and then prohibited from traveling abroad until 2015. Since that time, his art has increasingly centered on the themes of freedom of speech and expression. The Hirshhorn hosted Ai’s first U.S. retrospective in 2012, which he was unable to attend.

“As a leading voice for 21st-century arts and culture, the Hirshhorn is dedicated to showcasing the most impactful works in global contemporary art,” said Hirshhorn Director Melissa Chiu. “Throughout his distinguished career, Ai has redefined the roles of both an artist and an activist. With the Hirshhorn’s 2012 retrospective of his work, museumgoers looked back at his creative output during the previous two decades. With this new presentation, visitors will experience a special focused consideration of Ai’s most influential and critically acclaimed recent works.”

“The Hirshhorn is breaking new ground, engaging people of all ages in enormously creative ways,” said Smithsonian Secretary David Skorton. “The recent Kusama exhibition, along with the premiere of this Ai Weiwei installation, are perfect examples of what we have come to expect from the Hirshhorn under the leadership of Melissa Chiu.”

As part of “Ai Weiwei: Trace at Hirshhorn,” Ai debuts a new graphic wallpaper composition titled “The Plain Version of the Animal That Looks Like a Llama but is Really an Alpaca” that spans the outer wall of the museum’s second floor. The wallpaper is a new black-and-white variation on his gold-colored, similarly named work “The Animal That Looks Like a Llama but is Really an Alpaca,” which has been installed in the museum’s second-floor lobby. The design uses images of surveillance equipment to create intricate, decorative patterns and responds to the museum’s unique circular architecture. In all three works, the seriousness of the subject contrasts with the playfulness of the material, creating a dichotomy that characterizes the artist’s philosophy and inspires conversations around the issues his art addresses.

Ai joins the Hirshhorn’s 2017–18 schedule of diverse contemporary artists whose work reflects global conversations that shape history, politics and culture, including Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, German artist Markus Lüpertz, Swiss artist Nicolas Party, American artists Yoko Ono, Theaster Gates and Mark Bradford.

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