Ai Weiwei is without a doubt one of the most powerful multi-media and conceptual artists working today and a leading figure of political activism in the Arts. His complex and poetic works, which span over architecture, installation, photography, film and conceptual works, have been exhibited at prestigious art events and institutions all over the globe, reflecting on pressing political issues such as the global refugee crisis and the political situation in his home country of China, which has led to various measures against him by the Chinese authorities.
He was born in Beijing in 1957, where his family was exiled from due to this father, Ai Quing’s poetic activity, who was labelled an enemy to the Cultural Revolution. His father’s exile, who had to work cleaning public toilets to sustain their family, lived on vividly in Wei’s memory and has had a lasting effect on his artistic philosophy:
“And as a poet, as an artist, he worked so hard at first, and it was very impressive. He made those toilets very clean, and I think that the only rewarding feeling he could get was to make the toilets so completely clean. That act influenced me a lot. I think I’m a product of displacement. We were always being pushed by ideology and political conditions.”
With the end of the Revolution in 1976, he was allowed to return to Beijing, and attended the Beijing Film Academy from 1978 to 1981, to then continue to study at the Parson’s School of Design in New York City. Upon his return to China in 1993, he was one of the artists to build the dynamic community of experimental artists known as the Beijing East Village. His practice at that time turned its focus to reinterpreting and reworking Chinese artefacts, reflecting on the paradoxical relationship between the increasing modernization of the country and its commitment to tradition. Such works include Han-Dynasty Urn with Coca-Cola Logo (1994) which sees the brand logo sprawling across a traditional piece of Chinese pottery. He became interested in architecture after having built his studio in Beijing in 1999, and in 2003 founded his own firm FAKE to realize projects using mundane materials and simple design.
Ai Weiwei pursued his critique of the Chinese government through his online blog Sina, which he started in 2005. He was outspoken on various issues, one of the most notable being the 2008 Sichuan earthquake disaster. Ai Weiwei released a list of names of student casualties (which the Chinese government had refused to release) and blamed the death toll on unsafe building structures within the Names Project (2009). This led to the creation of the artwork Remembering (2009), an installation at the Haus der Kunst in Munich with 9000 children’s backpacks on the building’s façade, commemorating the students killed in the earthquake. These activities resulted in the blog getting shut down and Ai himself put under surveillance.
Simultaneously, he was gaining international recognition through his bold political engagement, which resulted in his installation in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in 2010. He filled the vast hall with 100 million hand-painted sunflower seeds made of porcelain, produced by Chinese craftsmen. The visitors were encouraged to walk on the fragile artwork, hereby crushing the seeds.
Ai encountered more pressure from the Chinese government in the same year, when he was told the studio complex he had built at the commission of the city mayor in Shanghai was going to be demolished because he didn’t obtain a certain permit. The potential real reason could have been his anti-government artistic activities including two documentary films he had shot that were critical of the Shanghai government. He was briefly put under house arrest.
In 2011, he was charged with tax evasion and briefly detained. After his release, he was presented with an obscene tax bill, which he contested and took to court, but his appeal was overruled and his license for his firm FAKE taken away. This gained Ai Weiwei wider attention from the international media and art world - he had multiple exhibitions while still in detainment, including a major retrospective, Ai Weiwei: According to What? at the Smithsonian museum’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. His public artwork Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads, originally produced for the Sao Paolo Biennale in 2010, was displayed in New York and London. There were worldwide protests organized for the artists’ release, including many petitions initiated by arts organizations such as the Solomon Guggenheim Museum. His story was also the focus of Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (2012), a documentary film fetching the special jury price at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. His bail was eventually lifted in 2012, but he wasn’t allowed to travel abroad until 2015. His vicissitudes and 81 days spent in detention were interpreted by the artist through S.A.C.R.E.D, a series of dioramas shown at the Venice Biennale in 2013.
In the mid 2010s, Ai Weiwei’s practice centred on the refugee crisis. His work in this period included several documentary films such as Human Flow, premiering at the Venice Film Festival in 2017, and an installation at the Konzerthaus Berlin in 2016 of 14000 life vests around the hall’s columns, collected by the artists on the island of Lesbos in Greece which saw an immense influx of Syrian refugees who managed to cross over the sea from Turkey during the Syrian Civil War.
In 2018, Ai Weiwei’s Beijing studio was demolished as a part of a redevelopment scheme without notice, damaging some of his works. The artists saw this as a clear demonstration of the Chinese government’s oppressive practices against free expression and the artistic community in the country.
The artist’s secondary market began in 2006, when his work started fetching prices above the high estimate. Despite a lot of curatorial attention in 2012 and 2013 with an exhibition at the Serpentine Galleries in London and the Venice Biennial, it wasn’t until 2015 his market exploded through his production of editions of iconic works such as Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn and Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads, which set the artist’s record. Since then he has been creating multiple editions and maintaining a steady market performance. A house designed by him hit the US market in 2019, commissioned by art collector Christopher Tsai in 2006, for just slightly less than his record auction price in 2015.
He has received many prestigious awards such as the Honorary Academician at the Royal Academy of Arts, London (2011), the Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent (2012) and the Chinese Contemporary Art Award(2008). His works are in the permanent collections of the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the MOMA in New York and Los Angeles County Museum of Art among others. Ai Weiwei currently lives and works in Berlin and continues to be a prolific artist continuously growing his multidisciplinary oeuvre, and one of the most significant symbols of resistance in the Arts.