Who is Ai Weiwei?
Oh Weiwei (Beijing, 1957) is an artist, thinker and activist whose artistic practice addresses pressing issues of our time. Due to his actions, he became one of the most outstanding cultural figures of his generation and a symbol of freedom of expression, both in China and internationally. Activist and defender of human rights,Oh Weiwei infuses his sculptures, photographs and public artworks with his political conviction and personal poetry, often drawing on recognizable and historic Chinese art forms in critical analyzes of a range of contemporary Chinese political and social issues.
In his sculptural works, he often uses recovered materials - ancient pottery and wood from destroyed temples - in a conceptual gesture that connects tradition with contemporary social concerns. It also employs sarcasm, juxtaposition and repetition to reinvigorate the potency and symbolism of traditional imagery and reframe the familiar with minimal means. A writer and curator, Ai Weiwei extends his practice across multiple disciplines and through social media to communicate with audiences and engage with other artists in large-scale projects. Ai Weiwei was already arrested by Chinese authorities in April 2011 and held incommunicado for three months. Upon his release, he was banned from traveling abroad, giving public speeches, and was subjected to continual government surveillance. Ai Weiwei's position as a provocateur and dissident artist informs the tenor and reception of much of his recent work.
Ai Weiwei's childhood and education
Ai Weiwei's father, Ai Qing, one of China's most popular poets, was accused by Communist officials of being right-wing and the family was exiled to remote locations shortly after Ai Weiwei's birth. The family was sent first to Heilongjiang Province in the northeast and then to Xinjiang Autonomous Region in the northwest before being allowed to return to Beijing in 1976 at the end of the Cultural Revolution. During his teenage years, Weiwei became interested in art, and in 1978 he enrolled at the Academy of Beijing cinema, although he found more creative and intellectual stimulation as part of a collective of avant-garde artists called Xingxing (“Stars”). Eager to escape the constraints of Chinese society, he moved to the United States in 1981. He attended the Parsons School of Design (part of what is now the New School) and became actively involved in the fertile subculture. Although Ai initially focused on painting, he soon turned to sculpture, inspired by the ready-made works of French artist Marcel Duchamp and German sculptor Joseph Beuys. Among his first creations shown in a solo exhibition in New York City in 1988 was a wire hanger bent in the shape of Duchamp's profile and a violin with a spade handle for a neck. However, as there was little market for Ai Weiwei's work and, in 1993, when his father fell ill, the artist ended up returning to Beijing. Exploring the tense relationship of an increasingly modernizing China with its cultural heritage, Ai began to create works that irrevocably transformed centuries-old Chinese artifacts - for example, a Han Dynasty urn on which he painted the Coca-Cola Logo symbol (1994) and pieces of Ming and Qing era furniture broken and reassembled into various non-functional configurations.
Between 1994 and 1997, Ai Weiwei collaborated on three books that promoted avant-garde Chinese art. These were published outside official government channels and became a symbol for China's underground art community. His fame rose in 2000 when he co-curated a deliberately outrageous art exhibition as an alternative to that year's Shanghai Biennale. After building his own studio complex on the outskirts of Beijing in 1999, Ai Weiwei turned to architecture, and four years later founded the design firm FAKE to realize his designs, which emphasized simplicity through use. of common materials. An architectural notion of space later informed Fairytale (2007), a conceptual project that involved transporting 1,001 ordinary Chinese citizens to Kassel, Germany, to explore the city during the Documenta art festival.
Problems with the Chinese government
In 2005, Ai Weiwei was invited to write a blog for the Chinese portal Sina. Although he initially used the blog to document aspects of his life, he soon found this forum to be the proper space for his criticisms of the Chinese government. Through the blog, Ai Weiwei publicly denied his role in helping to design the National Stadium project (popularly nicknamed the Bird's Nest). Furthermore, nearly a year after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake - in which shoddy construction was suspected to have been responsible for the deaths of thousands of children in destroyed public schools - Ai Weiwei criticized authorities for failing to release details of the deaths and mobilized its growing readership to investigate. The blog was soon shut down and Ai Weiwei was placed under surveillance, although he refused to reduce his activities, having moved his online presence to Twitter. Later in 2009, he was assaulted by police in Chengdu, where he was supporting a similar activist on trial. Among the works of art that resulted from Ai Weiwei's "citizen inquiry" was remembering (2009), installation in Munich in which 9,000 colored backpacks were placed on a wall to form a quote, in Chinese, from the mother of an earthquake victim.
In April 2011, Ai Weiwei was arrested for alleged “economic crimes” – it was later revealed that he was charged with tax evasion – in what was seen as part of a widespread crackdown on dissent. He was eventually released on bail more than two months later, with Chinese state newspapers eventually reporting that Ai Weiwei had confessed to the charges against him. In November, however, Ai was charged with a 15 million yuan ($2.4 million) invoice. The artist contested the bill with the help of private donations, but his final appeal was denied in court in September 2012 and shortly afterwards he announced that FAKE's commercial license had been revoked. International newspaper coverage of the incidents brought more attention to Ai Weiwei's art. In May 2011, while he was still detained, his public installation Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads , which featured bronze sculptures inspired by the Chinese zodiac, was shown in New York and London. The work had been created for the São Paulo Biennial in 2010. A major career retrospective, “Ai Weiwei: According to what?”, which originated in Tokyo in 2009, premiered at the Smithsonian Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden 🇧🇷 the documentaries Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (2012) and Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case (2013) portray the artist's conquests and vicissitudes.
Ai Weiwei's revolutionary and critical installations
In 2010, the installation “Sunflower Seeds”, at Tate Modern in London, of 100 million porcelain hand-painted sunflower seeds, produced by around 1,600 Chinese artisans. Until the exhibition was closed because of a feared health hazard, Ai Weiwei encouraged visitors to walk on the seeds, calling the fragile sculptures a metaphor for China's downtrodden population.
In the mid-2010s, Ai Weiwei turned his attention to the global refugee crisis with several projects, including a temporary installation of 14,000 life jackets around the columns of the Konzerthaus Berlin concert hall (2016). The vests were collected by Ai Weiwei on the Greek island of Lesbos, where his studio remained for several months during the height of the Syrian Civil War, when hundreds of asylum seekers arrived each day on their way to Europe after facing a perilous sea journey from from Turkey. The installation would aim not only to draw attention to the crisis, but also to serve as a tribute to the people who died during the passage.
In 2020, Ai Weiwei released "Coronation", a documentary about the Chinese government's response to the growing health crisis in Wuhan, the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic. From Europe, where he has lived since 2015, Ai led a team of volunteers to film the city's strict lockdown measures and their impact on daily life.
When he was in Portugal, he presented a body of work in Serralves that reflected his concerns with environmental issues and, more specifically, with the deforestation of the Brazilian Atlantic Forest. Ai Weiwei's sculptures represent what remains of these once verdant giants and are the expression of the current consequences of the greedy devastation of the natural environment.
By contemplating these roots, we understand the value of forests — the Earth's lungs — that provide the oxygen we need to breathe. Preserving these rapidly disappearing resources is a fundamental issue for the future of human beings. At Serralves Park, the Pequi Tree [Pequi vinegariro] was presented for the very first time, a 32-metre high cast-iron tree. Molded in Brazil, produced in China and installed in Serralves Park, this work witnessed the disappearance of the harmonious coexistence between nature and human beings, moving from wood to metal and from mortal to eternal, as an element of proof and as a monument.
Ai Weiwei's Legacy
Ai Weiwei received an honorary doctorate from the Faculty of Politics and Social Sciences at the University of Ghent, Belgium (2010), as well as many awards, including the Skowhegan Medal (2011) and the Chinese Contemporary Art Prize (2008). His work has appeared in major exhibitions at the Kunsthaus Bregenz (2011); Victoria & Albert Museum, London (2011); Asia Society Museum, New York (2011); Tate Modern, London (2010); São Paulo Biennial (2010); Haus der Kunst, Munich (2009); Mori Art Museum, Tokyo (2009); and Documenta XII (2007). Ai Weiwei lives and works in Beijing, China. His works of art belong to the collections of several institutions, including the Center Pompidou, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of Modern Art and the Tate, among others. His work sells for millions of dollars at auction, but given the diversity of his practice, many of his pieces sell for four or five figures on the secondary market.