Weiwei is also a human rights activist and an advocate of democracy, often using his artwork as a means to promote freedom and the rights of his fellow countrymen. In spite of the dangers and threats of speaking out against his government, Weiwei continued to criticize openly and highly the corruption and communism in China, constantly believing that the only way towards true prosperity for the country is through democracy.
Son of a Denounced Poet
Weiwei’s talent in art and passion for human rights runs in his blood—he is the son of the late Ai Qing, one of China’s greatest poets, who was denounced by the Chinese government for participating in the Anti-Rightist Movement in 1957, during which his wife, Gao Ying, bore Weiwei. The following year, Ai Qing and his family were exiled from Beijing for speaking out against the government and sent to farms to work. In 1959, they were transferred to Shihezi, a small city in the province of Xinjiang, by the Communists. Weiwei has an older brother, Ai Xuan.
For the next sixteen years, Weiwei lived with his parents in Shihezi and witnessed the cruelties of the Communist government. This experience fueled Weiwei’s desire to see his fellow countrymen free from the oppression of the Communist regime. It was also during these 16 years that Weiwei was exposed to the beauty of nature, which would later on inspire him in his artwork.
Despite not having proper education (by common standards) due to the Communists taking control of schools at that time, Weiwei became exceptional to his fellow youth mostly owing to his parents, especially his father, who was an accomplished writer and poet. In 1975, Ai Qing and his family, including Weiwei, returned to Beijing. By this time, Weiwei had already decided that he would become an artist, being inspired by his father.
In 1978, Weiwei attended the Beijing Film Academy and studied with future Chinese directors, Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige. During his time at the academy, he was highly regarded by his classmates as brilliant and highly skilled, often thinking out of the box and creating art ideas out of commonplace objects.
He also had quite a lot of friends, which led him to become a founding member of the “Stars,” an avant garde art group that included Wang Keping, Li Shuang, Ma Desheng, Zhong Acheng, Huang Rui, and Qu Leilei, who would later on become well-known artists in their own right. Although the group disbanded in 1983, Ai remained in friendly contact with his fellow Stars artists and would later on continue to participate in the group’s shows such as “The Stars: Ten Years” in 1989 and “Origin Point” in 2007.
In 1981, Weiwei left China for the United States so he could study at the Parsons School of Design. He spent most of his time in the United States in New York, creating conceptual art designs from ready-made objects, altering or modifying them to his delight. He also joined the Art Students League of New York to further his artistic skills, impressing many of his fellow art students by his amazing designs.
Professional Blackjack Player
While in the United States, Weiwei was also introduced by his friends to the card game Blackjack, to which he immediately took a liking. He became so fascinated with the game that he would frequent Atlantic City casinos, making him one of the best players. In fact, Weiwei is still regarded in many gambling circles as an excellent professional blackjack player, according to blackjackchamp.com.
Weiwei’s life in the United States was a mix of both adventure and struggle, since he did not know anyone when he arrived. It did not help that the air overseas is thick with cultural discrimination, being quite prevalent during that time. It was through the support of his new-found friends and his blackjack earnings that he was able to establish himself. He stayed in the United States for the next 12 years, returning to China upon learning that his father became ill.
Upon his return to China in 1993, Weiwei established a career for himself as an independent artist. One of the most significant things that Weiwei participated in was the establishment of the Beijing East Village, a place for experimental artists. He also wrote a series of books that talked about the new generation of artists, namely: the “Black Cover Book” (published in 1994), “White Cover Book” (published in 1995), and the “Gray Cover Book” (published in 1997).
One of the things that Weiwei loved doing when he returned to China was hosting gatherings for his friends in their family courtyard. In one of the gatherings in 1994, Weiwei met Lu Qing, with whom Weiwei fell in love with and married in 1997. Lu Qing was fond of Ai Weiwei’s artwork, and was often featured in Weiwei’s most iconic film works, one being the black and white photo of the Tiananmen Square, where Lu Qing acted as the exhibitionist and lifted her skirt up for Weiwei.
In 1995, Weiwei began his “Study of Perspective” series. In this photo collection, Weiwei took photographs of very well-known landmarks such as the White House and the Tiananmen Square, with his middle finger raised defiantly at the middle of the picture. The series ran for eight years. It was also in this year that Ai Weiwei released his most famous work in the 1990s, “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn.” The photograph document showed Weiwei dropping and shattering a Han Dynasty urn, which Weiwei declared to be his way of advocating independent thinking. The photo piece became so popular that in 2008, it was sold at the Phillips de Pury & Company’s auction for more than 49,000 pounds.
In 1996, Ai Qing died at the age of 86 years old. Weiwei temporarily postponed his work to go home and mourn.
Founding the China Art Archives & Warehouse
In 1997, Ai Weiwei co-founded the China Art Archives & Warehouse with his friends in Stars, where he also became the Artistic Director. According to Weiwei in his interviews, they established this space to showcased contemporary avant-garde art from China. Aside from Chinese experimental art, the facility also initiated exhibitions and introductions from outside the country. After gaining a lot of reputation, the CAAW finally got a building of its own in 2001, which was designed by Ai Weiwei.
That year, he also released his artwork, the “Table with Two Legs on the Wall,” which featured a Qing-era table that Weiwei turned into something surreal. This showed Weiwei’s favorite theme—to change traditional furniture into sculptures which had no function at all.
In 1998, Ai Weiwei transferred to Caochangdi, a small village in the northeastern part of Beijing. He built a studio house, which was his first architectural project. Weiwei was significant to the village’s popularity. Since he settled in Caochangdi, the village has been developed into becoming an Arts and Cultural center. From that time on, aside from workers, farmers and students, it also became a society for budding artists, which would later on become famous in their own right.
Ai Weiwei co-curated the art exhibition entitled “Fuck Off” in 2000, alongside his friend curator Feng Boyi. According to Weiwei, the exhibition was a reaction to the allegedly over-complacent Shanghai Biennale, the city’s first attempt at truly letting the international community survey China’s contemporary art. Weiwei included his own photos in the exhibition, which brought an “offending” message to the Shanghai government. A few weeks after the exhibition opened, it was closed by the government. In 2002, he curated the Jinhua Architecture Park, a collection of 17 pavilions designed by Chinese and international architects.
Starting FAKE Design
Due to his interest and passion for architecture, Weiwei founded FAKE Design, an architecture studio, in 2003. This allowed Weiwei to invite various architects to help them achieve their goals through designing. He also released his “Forever Bicycles” art installation that year, which was a group of the most popular bicycles in China interlinked with each other.
Two years later, in 2005, Weiwei was invited by Sina Weibo, the largest internet platform in China, to start blogging. This enabled him to not only voice out his criticisms through his artwork, but to also put them into words. That same year, Weiwei became a co-curator at the exhibition titled “Mahjong: Contemporary Chinese Art” in several countries in Europe such as Germany, Austria and Switzerland, and even in the United States.
In 2006, Weiwei went to New York to collaborate with HHF Architects in designing a private residence for world-renowned collectors, Andre Stockamp and Christopher Tsai. Upon the completion of the house in 2008, it became one of the city’s most beautiful attractions, and received numerous awards and recognitions, such as the International Architecture Awards by the Chicago Athenaeum Museum of Architecture and Design (2009) and the Best New Private House by the Wallpaper Design Awards (2010). The New York Times described the house as “extraordinarily refined,” and the New York Magazine stated that the Tsai residence looks like a “floating boomerang of rusty Cor-Ten steel.”
A Successful and Influential Artist
Due to Ai Weiwei’s increasing popularity worldwide, he became invited more and more in various art exhibitions and projects in many countries. In 2007, he flew 1,001 people from all over China to Germany to participate in the “Fairytale” exhibition. In this exhibition, Weiwei scattered 1,001 Qing Dynasty chairs across the grounds, as well as presenting his monumental outdoor sculpture entitled “Template,” which was constructed from wooden doors and windows from the Ming and Qing dynasty houses.
Weiwei even designed luggage, clothes, and a temporary home at an old textile factory, and let the people he brought wander around the city of Kassel (where the exhibition was being held) during the duration of the exhibition. In that year, Weiwei also constructed the “Fountain of Light,” a seven meter steel and crystals tower, which was an interpretation of the “Monument to the Third International” by Vladimir Tatlin.
In 2008, Weiwei released his solo artwork at the Boone Gallery in New York, which featured his famous “Descending Light”, a large red chandelier positioned in such a way that it looks like it crashed to the earth. In that same year, he started the architectural Ordos 100 project in Inner Mongolia, where he invited over 100 architects from 29 countries to participate. But his most memorable work that year was when he was invited by the government to team up with the architects of the Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron to design the Beijing National Stadium, the sports complex which was to be used in the 2008 Summer Olympics. Just before the building was completed, Weiwei distanced himself from the project, claiming that he must “bid farewell to autocracy.” He stated:
"I will stay away from the opening ceremony because I believe the freedom of choice is the basis of fair competition."
Using Art to Help Earthquake Victims
In May of 2008, a deadly earthquake hit Sichuan, taking the lives of more than 69,000 people. Highly critical of the numbers that were released, Weiwei used his celebrity status and launched a public investigation regarding the buildings that collapsed and killed thousands of children. He organized a group of volunteers and compiled lists of students that died in the earthquake. In his blog in 2009, he released the compilation to the public.
In 2009, Weiwei attended several art exhibitions around the world such as the “So Sorry” exhibit at Munich, the “According to What?” exhibition at Japan, and a small exhibition in Hong Kong. Sometime in that year, Weiwei returned to Sichuan to pay tribute to those who died during the 2008 earthquake, as well as to support his fellow investigator, Tan Zuoren, who was on trial for being a political activist.
While staying at a hotel, however, he was arrested by the police and beaten. During his visit to Munich, he was diagnosed to have internal cranial bleeding as a result of the beatings he received from Chinese authorities. After staying a few weeks at the hospital to recuperate, Ai Weiwei was released and went on to curate his exhibition in Brussels, entitled “The State of Things.”
In 2010, Ai Weiwei participated in the popular “Digital Activism in China,” a discussion that was hosted by the Paley Media Center in New York. In the discussion, he joined other well-known people, such as Richard MacManus and Jack Dorsey, the founder of social media site Twitter, of which Weiwei was a fan of, having tens of thousands of followers in his account.
Sun Flower Seeds
He went to London that year to open his exhibit at the Tate Modern Turbine Hall, called “Sunflower Seeds,” created from one hundred million porcelain seeds, each seed being individually painted by around 1,600 Chinese artisans. Although this was Weiwei’s most popular creation, the hall had to be closed just two days after its opening due to the toxic fumes that were being emitted by the ceramic seeds when people walked on them. As a remedy, upon the museum’s opening, the people were allowed to view the seeds but were forbidden to walk on them.
Weiwei also engaged in other art conventions, such as being a jury member in the Future Generation Art Prize in Ukraine and a design contributor to the Comme de Garcons Aoyama Store in Japan.
Ai Weiwei’s artwork and installations have often been known to imply several ideas criticizing the government of China. Because of this, there had been several times that Weiwei was threatened to stay silent or otherwise face drastic consequences. Despite this, Weiwei continued to openly display his artwork and to make statements that the authorities found offensive. And as such, in April 2011, Ai Weiwei was abducted by the authorities and brought to a secret location to be confined, despite having no official charges filed against him. In the days following his arrest, the government released the statement that Ai Weiwei was being arrested for charges of tax evasion.
Demolition and Abduction
His studio in Shanghai was demolished by the authorities. The international response to Ai Weiwei’s arrest was overwhelming. All around the world, numerous protesters demanded his release. A website was even set up to promote the freedom of Ai, freeaiweiwei.com. Eighty-one days later, Ai Weiwei was freed by the authorities from imprisonment. During an interview made with Weiwei, he stated that while in prison, he was interrogated at least 50 times. One of the most famous protests for Ai Weiwei’s freedom was done in Hong Kong, where a street art image with Ai’s portrait had the words, “Who’s Afraid of Ai Weiwei?” This art was everywhere in the city during that time.
In the time prior to and following Ai Weiwei’s abduction, he served as the co-director and curator of both the Gwangju Design Biennale as well as the Shanshui exhibition at the Museum of Art Lucerne. He was also one of the guest speakers at the 2011 TED conference and became a guest lecturer at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design. Ai Weiwei was also made an honorary member of the Berlin University of Arts in 2011. During his absence, his artwork entitled “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads” was also opened at the Pulitzer Fountain in New York City, London, and Yuanmingyuan in China.
Ai Weiwei’s Controversial Gangnam Style
In 2012, Ai Weiwei published a cover of “Gangnam Style,” a famous K-pop phenomenon that spanned the world that year. In the cover, he parodied the video as a means of criticizing the Chinese government’s attempt to keep his activities silent. A few days after the release of the video, it was immediately blocked by the authorities.
Ai Weiwei’s artwork usually depicts his desire for a democratic and communist-free China. Due to his experience living under the communist regime, Weiwei has long wanted to see his country free and peaceful. Weiwei’s compassion for his fellow countrymen stems from his upbringing and from the things that he has witnessed as a child.
Recently, Ai released a photo of himself wearing a gas mask and a blog which states that it was his solution to Beijing’s pollution.
Artwork Exhibitions and Installations
- 1979: The Stars First Exhibition (Beijing)
- 1980: The Stars Second Exhibition (China Art Gallery, Beijing)
- 1987: The Star of Harvard: Chinese Dissident Art (Fairbank Center for East Asian Research)
- 1988: Old Shoes (Safe Sex Art Waves Gallery,New York)
- 2008: Groninger Museum, Groningen
- 2008: Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, Cambelltown Arts Center, Sydney
- 2009: Three Shadows Photography Art Center, Beijing
- 2009: So Sorry (Haus der Kunst, Munich)
- 2009: According to What? (Mori Art Museum, Tokyo)
- 2009: Comme des Garcons, Hong Kong
- 2009-2010: The State of Things (Center for Fine Arts, Brussels)
- 2010: The State of Things (The National Art Museum, Beijing)
- 2010: Ai Weiwei: Dropping the Urn (Arcadia University Gallery, Glenside)
- 2010: Ai Weiwei: Dropping the Urn (Museum of Contemporary Craft, Portland)
- 2010: Barely Something (Museum DKM, Duisburg)
- 2010: Sunflower Seeds (Tate Modern Turbine Hall, London)
- 2011: Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads (Pulitzer Fountain, New York City)
- 2011-2012: Ai Weiwei: Dropping the Urn (Victoria and Albert Museum, London)
- 2012: New York. 1983-1993 (Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow)
- 2012: Real Life Stories (Art Museums of Bergen, Norway)
- 2012: According to What? (Smithsonian Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture, Washington D.C.)
Organizations and Programmes Supported
- Free Ai Weiwei
Awards and Achievements
- 2008: Received the Chinese Contemporary Art Award
- 2009: Received the GQ Men of the Year Award for Moral Courage
- 2009: Included in the Art Review Power 100, rank 43rd
- 2009: Received the International Architecture Awards for Tsai Residence
- 2010: Included in the Art Review Power 100, rank 13th
- 2010: Received the Das Glas der Vernunft, Kassel Citizen Award
- 2010: Received the Wallpaper Design Award for Best New Private House for Tsai Residence
- 2011: Included in the Art Review Power 100, rank 1st
- 2011: Gained membership at the Academy of Arts in Berlin, Germany
- 2011: Received the Wall Street Journal Innovators Award
- 2011: Included in TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World
- 2011: Named as one of the Foreign Policy Top Global Thinkers
- 2011: Received the Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation Award for Courage
- 2011: Awarded the Skowhegan Medal for Multidisciplinary Art
- 2011: Named as an Honorary Academian at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, U.K.
- 2012: Won the Vaclav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent from the Human Rights Foundation
- 2012: Received the Cornell Capa Award from the International Center of Photography
- 2012: Named as an Honorary Fellow at the Royal Institute of British Architects
- 2010: Honorary Doctorate from the University of Ghent, Belgium
- 2012: Honorary Degree from Pratt Institute, Brooklyn