10 Facts About Ai Weiwei

Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn by Ai Weiwei (1995). Three consecutive photographs of artist Ai Weiwei dropping an urn onto the floor.Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn © Ai Weiwei 1995
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Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei

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Ai Weiwei is a name that is synonymous with Chinese contemporary art and political activism. His works, which have been showcased in museums and galleries all over the world, are known for their thought-provoking and insightful commentary on culture, politics, and society. From his provocative installations to his outspoken social media presence, Ai Weiwei’s has become a leading voice in the contemporary art scene.

“If my art has nothing to do with people's pain and sorrow, what is 'art' for?”
Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei is a notable anti-government commentator

Ai Weiwei is renowned for his willingness to criticise actions taken by the Chinese government. Following years of his scathing political and cultural commentary, he was arrested and detained for 81 days in 2011 on the charge of tax evasion. Among supporters and international organisations, the detainment was largely viewed as being motivated by his vocal criticism of the government. Upon release, his passport was confiscated for four years, during which time he remained under heavy surveillance. To this day, Ai continues to speak out against government oppression and censorship through his art and social media platforms.

Straight by Ai Weiwei. Scrap metal in pole shapes arranged in an undulating formationImage © Edna Winti via Flickr, CC BY 2.0 / Straight © Ai Weiwei 2008-2012

Ai is as much an activist as an artist

Ai Weiwei is also known for his efforts as a political organiser, which often takes expression in his art. He was a prolific opponent of the Chinese government's handling of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which led to the death of over 5,000 schoolchildren. In response to the government's lack of accountability and transparency around the event, the dissident artist gathered volunteers to launch a ”Citizens' Investigation“. They worked to compile the names and information of the student victims. He created Straight, an installation which was composed of rebar salvaged from the earthquake site and was meant to memorialise the victims.

Odyssey by Ai Weiwei (2017). A black and white print with seven frieze-style scenes of war.Odyssey by Ai Weiwei © 2017

The artist’s style is marked by collaboration and tradition

Ai Weiwei's creative process and artistic expression is often collaborative and involves a team of artisans, designers, and engineers. He is known for his use of unconventional materials and techniques, such as porcelain, sunflower seeds, and bamboo. He often draws inspiration from traditional Chinese art culture and incorporates it into his contemporary works and architecture.

Video © The Telegraph/ Sunflower Seeds © Ai Weiwei 2010


Ai lived in the U.S. in the ‘80s and ‘90s

The artist was born in Beijing in 1957, moving to Philadelphia, San Francsico to study in 1981 before moving to New York City. There, he joined the Art Students League from 1983 to 1986, the alma mater of Pop Art founding figure Roy Lichenstein. While there, he also met and became friends with Beat poet Allen Ginsberg at a poetry reading, who had gotten to know Ai’s father, poet Ai Qing, on a trip to Beijing.

Self-Portrait in Lego by Ai Weiwei (2017). A portrait of artist Ai Weiwei from a side profile, made out of legoSelf-Portrait in Lego © Ai Weiwei 2017

Ai’s work has achieved global recognition

Ai Weiwei's works have been showcased in museums and galleries all over the world, including the Tate Modern and Royal Academy in London and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington D.C.. He has been awarded numerous international awards for his art, including the 2015 Ambassador of Conscience Award from Amnesty International, the organisation’s highest honour.

Video © Hirshorn / Trace © Ai Weiwei 2014


The artist is a self-professed lover of Instagram and Twitter

Ai Weiwei is active on Twitter and Instagram, where he has over 650,000 followers on each platform. He has often taken to the platforms to publish social and political commentaries. Following the shutdown of his blog on the Chinese internet platform Sina Weibo in 2009, he took to Twitter to continue airing his criticism of government policies, as well as sharing autobiographical updates. Allegedly spending over eight hours online every day, Ai declared he would stop tweeting in 2013 but continues to retweet and reply to users on the platform.

A close-up of Ai Weiwei's Sunflower Seeds installation at the Tate Modern, in London 2010.Image © Dominic Alves via Flickr, CC BY 2.0 / Sunflower Seeds © Ai Weiwei 2010

Ai utilises several creative formats

In addition to his visual art, Ai Weiwei has also dabbled in film and literature. He has directed several documentaries including Human Flow, a feature-length film that captures the far-reaching impacts of the global refugee crisis. He has also written several books. Most notably, the artist’s memoir 1000 Years of Joy and Sorrow is an autobiographical record of his own life, written in response to concerns that the Chinese government may censor other documents related to his activities.

Forever Bicycles by Ai Weiwei (2011). Bicycle wheels arranged in a kaleidoscopic pattern in front of a building.Image © Lorie Shaull via Flickr CC BY 2.0 / Forever Bicycles © Ai Weiwei 2011

The artist is known for his installation art

Ai Weiwei's works often involve large-scale installations that are designed to interact with the surrounding environment and engage viewers. He has created installations in public spaces such as parks, plazas, and museums, and his works often incorporate a sense of playfulness while also engaging with Chinese artistic traditions and contemporary society. One of his most famous installations is Forever Bicycles, a towering sculpture made up of 1179 of bicycles that together form a kaleidoscopic shape. It was first displayed at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum in 2011.

Wo Ist Die Revolution by Ai Weiwei (2019). A black and white portrait of the artist striding towards the camera, with text overlaid that reads "Wo ist die revolution?". Wo Ist Die Revolution © Ai Weiwei 2019

Ai has done some high-profile collaborations

Ai Weiwei has collaborated with other artists and publications throughout his career. In his most influential collaboration, he worked with Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron on the design of the 'Bird's Nest' stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He has also designed magazine covers for Time magazine and the New Statesman.

Declaration Of The Rights Of Man And The Citizen by Ai Weiwei (2019). A reproduction of the documetn, footed by text, on a white background. Declaration Of The Rights Of Man And The Citizen © Ai Weiwei 2019

Human Rights Advocacy

Ai Weiwei is an outspoken advocate for human rights and has used his art to draw attention to issues such as freedom of speech, refugee rights, and the treatment of prisoners. He is the artistic director of the China Art Archives and Warehouse, a non-profit organisation that aims to promote contemporary Chinese art and support artists who have been censored or persecuted by the government.