In Meiro Koizumi's three-channel video installation, The Angels of Testimony (2019), the central frame features an interview with Hajime Kondo about his time as a solider of the Imperial Japanese Army during the Second Sino-Japanese War. The conversation centres on war crimes perpetrated in China, including the beheading of Chinese prisoners for...
Diana Campbell Betancourt is a curator working predominantly across South and Southeast Asia. Since 2013 she has been the founding artistic director of the Samdani Art Foundation and chief curator of the Dhaka Art Summit in Dhaka, Bangladesh, a transnational art event that has grown in size and scale ever since its first edition in 2012. Backed by...
China, home to 802 million internet users, is subject to sophisticated online censorship. This shrouded state of affairs, unsurprisingly perhaps, serves to reinforce stereotypes around conformity elsewhere. Any realm, digital or otherwise, subject to such strict scrutiny must necessarily be bland and uncritical, right? I was mulling over such...
Sculpture by Ai Weiwei in front of the Sakıp Sabancı Museum and overlooking the Bosphorus (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic).
In an era where superstar Chinese artist Ai Weiwei feels ubiquitous, this past summer I experienced the full extent of that reality over the course of two months. After attending a New York preview for his new film about migrants, Human Flow (2017), I traveled to Israel to visit a major exhibition of his work at the Israel Museum in West Jerusalem, then a show of his porcelain works at the Sakıp Sabancı Museum in Istanbul. Shortly after that, I returned to New York City, right around the time his major public art project, Fences, opened. And these weren't the only exhibitions by Ai being mounted around the world.
Ai Weiwei is China's most recognised contemporary artist. In the past 25 years, Ai has come to acclaim for his large-scale installations, political activism and frenetic online presence. Ai is the son of renowned poet Ai Qing, a one-time member of the Chinese Communist Party who was accused of 'rightist' opposition to the government the year of his son's birth. The family was subsequently exiled to a labour camp in rural northern China where they lived for 16 years. After Mao Zedong's death and the ensuing end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, the family returned to Beijing where the young Ai enrolled in the Beijing Film Academy. It was here that he co-founded Stars Group, one of China's earliest avant-garde art collectives.
In 1981, Ai moved to the United States where he studied at the University of Pennsylvania; the University of California, Berkeley; and Parsons School of Design in New York. However, he ultimately dropped out and made a living by working odd jobs. During this time he took a prolific amount of photographs in the city's East Village and learned about conceptual art, performance and poetry from friends like Allen Ginsberg—lessons that would inform his developing practice. In 1993, due to his father's illness, Ai returned to China and found it a changed nation—the pro-democracy Tiananmen Square protests had taken place just four years earlier and surges of materialism, corruption and environmental problems had accompanied the country's rapid economic development. Inspired by his time in New York's East Village, Ai contributed to the creation of the Beijing East Village, an avant-garde artistic community comprising some of the first Chinese performance artists. Ai made his own first significant performance work two years later, when he dropped a 2000-year-old Han Dynasty urn (Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, ). Met with outrage, Ai drew connections between the act and Mao Zedong's stance that China must both build a new world and destroy the old one, a sentiment used to justify the sacking of cultural objects and historical signifiers during the Cultural Revolution. Such wariness of establishment and government came to characterise Ai's career, and is surmised in his ongoing series of photographs that depict him giving the middle finger to structures of power such as Tiananmen Square, Hong Kong's skyline, the Eiffel Tower and the White House (Study of Perspective [1995–2003]).
Ai is an artist, architect, photographer, filmmaker, antique furniture dealer, scholar and designer, but what he has become most known for is his criticism of the Chinese government—an authority that employs strict censorship and is known for punishing dissenters. Ai and the Communist Party first clashed when in 2005, the largest internet platform in China invited the artist to begin blogging. As relayed in a 2006 interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist, the artist was 'totally seduced'. He posted a constant stream of social commentary, political criticisms, personal writings and photographs; at one point over 100,000 people were reading per day. Due to its perceived sensitive content, the blog was shut down by authorities four years later. Ai took to Twitter and Instagram (both banned in China) where his hundreds of thousands of followers are still inundated with images of his life and work. He is widely credited for bringing to light human rights issues in China for an international audience.
In 2008, along with Herzog & de Meuron, Ai came to even greater global acclaim when he acted as artistic consultant for the Beijing National Stadium, constructed for that year's Olympics. Yet controversy struck again when in the same year, an earthquake hit Sichuan province and thousands of children died while studying in shoddily constructed schools. Ai launched a 'Citizens' Investigation', rallying the public to collect the names of the victims in order to memorialise them and shed light on the substandard building conditions that had heightened the death toll. The government did not approve, and Ai was beaten by police shortly before he was scheduled to testify for one of his collaborators on the project and suffered a cerebral haemorrhage. One of Ai's most famous photographs shows him in the elevator with the policemen after the attack (Ai Weiwei in the Elevator When Taken into Custody by the Police ). Still, Ai's work about the earthquake travelled to Munich, where it was included in the exhibition So Sorry at the Haus der Kunst from October 2009 to January 2010. Displayed on the museum's façade, the installation Remembering (2009) was constructed from 9000 children's backpacks and spelled out the phrase 'For seven years she lived happily on this earth', a quote from one of the young victim's mothers. This multiplicity of material and large scale is characteristic of Ai, who is known for repeating and modifying simple materials, as seen in the millions of porcelain seeds for his 2010 Tate Modern project Sunflower Seeds, and his accumulation of 886 wooden stools in Bang at the 2013 Venice Biennale.
2011 was a monumental year for Ai; the artist was arrested at the Beijing airport by authorities who had branded him as a 'deviant and plagiarist'. His studios were searched, computers confiscated and Ai and his staff and family were questioned. After almost three months of harsh imprisonment, Ai was released after receiving charges of tax evasion. Yet his passport was confiscated for four years as the artist was 'suspected of other crimes'. He is still under close watch by authorities; indeed, the cameras installed by the police in front of his studio to monitor his activities inspired his marble sculpture Surveillance Camera (2010). In recent years, Ai's attention has been focused on the migrant emergencies in the Middle East. The artist has travelled extensively to refugee camps and the shores where migrants enter Europe to conduct research and document the humanitarian crisis. Law of the Journey (2017–18) featured a 230-foot-long inflatable raft carrying 258 faceless refugee figures, while thousands of lifejackets collected from asylum seekers in Lesbos made up the installation Soleil Levant (2017) in Copenhagen. The installation saw the façade of a major building adorned with the bright orange safety vests. Other recent projects have focused on surveillance, drones and political prisoners.
Ai Weiwei currently lives in Berlin, where he is the Einstein Visiting Professor at the Berlin University of the Arts.
If a 21st birthday "coming of age" observance can be applied to cultural events, 2018 marks the launch into adulthood of the Biennale of Sydney. In some ways Sydney's biennale was a precocious child, turning its back during infancy on mainstream Eurocentric art in favour of exploring its local geographic region, early on including...
Running until 18 January 2018, Qiu Zhijie: Journeys Without Arrivals focuses on the work of the artist Qiu Zhijie, who made waves for his satirical, often tongue-in-cheek calligraphic maps of the world. The Beijing-based artist is known for producing enormous, overwhelming ink maps, which often provide an underlying commentary that weave physical...
Beijing artist Guo Hongwei is a master of watercolor technique, able to create convincing, almost photographic, results from this most minimal medium. He is also a collector of sorts, using his skill to assemble taxonomies of natural elements: leaves and butterflies, rocks and crystals.
Ai Weiwei's proposal for a public art project scheduled to take hold beginning mid-October in high-traffic public environments within Manhattan and Brooklyn in New York City has been met with resistance from the Washington Square community.
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