Artist, architectural designer, curator and social activist, Ai Weiwei, born August 28th 1957 in Beijing, is one of the most prolific artists active in China today. Through his many outlets, Ai engages political and cultural criticism to confront China's stance on democracy and human rights.
Artist, architectural designer, curator and social activist, Ai Weiwei, born August 28th 1957 in Beijing, is one of the most prolific artists active in China today. Through his many outlets, Ai engages political and cultural criticism to confront China's stance on democracy and human rights. Profoundly influenced by Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol, the artist uses readymade objects such as traditional Chinese art in direct juxtaposition with modern production methods.
His father, poet Ai Qing, was denounced during the Anti-Rightist Movement in China, and so, in 1958, his family was sent to a labour camp and subsequently exiled to the far Northwest of the country for 16 years until their return to Beijing in 1976, at the end of the Cultural Revolution.
Ai studied animation in the Beijing Film Academy and, in 1978, he co-founded the avant-garde group Stars with fellow artists Ma Desheng, Wang Keping, Huang Rui, Li Shuang, Zhong Acheng, and Qui Leilei. He then spent a little over a decade in New York, where he briefly attended the Parsons School of Design as well as the Art Students League. When he dropped out of school in 1986, he made a living out of drawing street portraits and working odd jobs. He became close friends with beat poet Allen Ginsberg, while attending a poetry reading in New York, where Ginsberg read poems about China. Living in the East Village, from 1983 to 1993, Ai carried a camera with him all the time and would take pictures of his surroundings. The resulting collection of photos were later selected and is now known as the New York Photographs.
In 1993 his father became ill, so Ai returned to China and continued making art in Beijing, where he built a home and studio.
In 2005, the artist was invited to start blogging by Sina Weibo, the biggest Internet platform in China, thus launching a new passion -and outlet.
In 2008, Ai was commissioned to collaborate with the Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron on the “Bird’s Nest” stadium for the Beijing Olympics; he later referred to the project as a “pretend smile of bad taste.” His blog was shut down by Sina on 28 May 2009 due to its popularity and Weiwei's outspoken attitude on the Beijing Olympic Games and events such as the Sichuan earthquake.
That August, as a result of his activist work, the artist was beaten by Chinese police and in 2011 he was arrested and held for 81 days without being charged with any crime. (His series “SACRED,” which premiered in Venice during the 2013 Biennale, directly drew on this experience.) The United States and European Union protested Ai's detention and the international arts community mobilized petitions calling for his release: "1001 Chairs for Ai Weiwei" called for artists to bring chairs to Chinese embassies and consulates around the world on 17 April 2011, at 1 pm local time "to sit peacefully in support of the artist's immediate release."
Ai lives and works in Beijing with his wife, artist Lu Qing,
Ai’s work has been shown in major solo exhibitions at New York’s Brooklyn Museum, Munich’s Pinakothek der Moderne, Seville’s Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporaneo, and Washington D.C.’s Smithsonian Institution, among many others and is also featured in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Tate Modern in London and Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris.
Awards and honors include 2008 Chinese Contemporary Art Awards, Lifetime Achievement, 2010 Honorary Doctorate Degree from the Faculty of Politics and Social Science, University of Ghent, Belgium.
In 2013 he was ranked no.9 in ArtReview's Power 100 and he received an honorary doctorate in Fine Arts at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, USA. He was Amnesty International’s Ambassador of Conscience Award in 2015.
In December 2015, Ai’s interest in humanitarian matters was captured when he was invited by the Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens, Greece to visit the island of Lesbos, which was in the throngs of the refugee crisis. Although Ai’s original plan was to stay on the island for 48 hours, he “got caught up in the terrible situation,” and established a temporary studio on the island. The seminal exhibition, Ai Weiwei at Cycladic, is currently running at the Museum of Cycladic Art from May 20th – October 30th, 2016. New works inspired by the refugee crisis are displayed among many of his most well-known pieces.
Text by Eleni Papaioannou