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Havana Biennial 2019: Constructing the Possible Ocula Report Havana Biennial 2019: Constructing the Possible 17 Apr 2019 : Federica Bueti for Ocula

I first visited Havana in November 2016, a few days after Fidel Castro died, and just under a year before Hurricane Irma hit Cuba in September 2017. Since then, much has changed, including the hand-painted signs that punctuate the journey from the airport to the city centre, which today do not celebrate the revolution so much as the 'Unidad y...

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Andrew Stahl and Guo Xiaohui Ocula Conversation Andrew Stahl and Guo Xiaohui

The exhibition Beyond Boundaries at Somerset House in London (12 March–2 April 2019) marked the historic contributions of the Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing (CAFA) and the Slade School of Fine Art, University College London, on the occasion of their 100th and 150th anniversaries, respectively. Spread across several rooms of Somerset House's...

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The National 2019: New Australian Art Ocula Report The National 2019: New Australian Art 13 Apr 2019 : Elyse Goldfinch for Ocula

The National 2019: New Australian Art features work by 70 contemporary Australia-based artists split across three venues: the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), Carriageworks, and the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA) (29 March–21 July 2019), as curated by Isobel Parker Philip, curator of photographs at AGNSW; Daniel Mudie Cunningham,...

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Ai Weiwei

b. 1957, China

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, [1995]). 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 [2009]). 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.

Elliat Albrecht | Ocula | 2018
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Featured Artworks

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Law of the Journey by Ai Weiwei contemporary artwork Ai WeiweiLaw of the Journey, 2017 Reinforced PVC
1640 x 580 x 350 cm
Tang Contemporary Art
National Stadium by Ai Weiwei contemporary artwork Ai WeiweiNational Stadium, 2005 - 2007 Digital lamda print, set of 10 (framed),
91 x 111 cm
Galerie Urs Meile
National Stadium No. 5 15.09.2006 by Ai Weiwei contemporary artwork Ai WeiweiNational Stadium No. 5 15.09.2006, 2005-2007 Digital lambda print
91 x 111 cm
Galerie Urs Meile
Sugar Pill by Ai Weiwei contemporary artwork Ai WeiweiSugar Pill, 2013 Huali wood
134 x 86 x 74 cm
Galerie Urs Meile
Illumination by Ai Weiwei contemporary artwork Ai WeiweiIllumination, 2009 Digital Lamba Print, mounted,
126 x 168 cm
Galerie Urs Meile
Frame by Ai Weiwei contemporary artwork Ai WeiweiFrame Rosewood
100 x 100 cm
Container by Ai Weiwei contemporary artwork Ai WeiweiContainer, 2013 Huanghuali wood
190 x 190 x 190 cm
Galerie Urs Meile

Recent Exhibitions

Contemporary art exhibition, Ai Weiwei, Ai Weiwei at Galerie Urs Meile, Lucerne
13 November 2014–17 January 2015 Ai Weiwei Ai Weiwei Galerie Urs Meile, Lucerne
Contemporary art exhibition, Group show, FRAMED: AI WEIWEI AND HONG KONG ARTISTS at Duddell's, Hong Kong
5 November 2013–7 February 2014 Group show FRAMED: AI WEIWEI AND HONG KONG ARTISTS Duddell's, Hong Kong

Represented By

In Ocula Magazine

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Local to Global: Gallery Weekend Beijing 2018 Ocula Report Local to Global: Gallery Weekend Beijing 2018 13 Apr 2018 : Bowen Li for Ocula

Gallery Weekend Beijing was first staged in 2017 on a number of premises, including the fact that Beijing needed an annual event with international appeal to maintain its place as an art destination after the rise of successful art fairs, and an increasing number of museums, in other regional cities like Shanghai and Hong Kong. As its title...

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One belt, one road, one  biennale: Yinchuan's stand against cultural desertification Ocula Report One belt, one road, one biennale: Yinchuan's stand against cultural desertification 1 Nov 2016 : Sam Gaskin for Ocula

Over 70 artists from 33 countries are represented in the inaugural Yinchuan Biennale, which opened amidst scandal on 9 September 2016. Not included is a work by Ai Weiwei, who was invited to take part alongside other art stars Yoko Ono and Anish Kapoor before being disinvited just weeks before the opening.In a tweet, Ai connects the...

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Dr Uli Sigg Ocula Conversation Dr Uli Sigg Collector

When Sydney art dealer Ray Hughes visited Swiss collector Uli Sigg at his Mauensee residence near Lucerne some years ago, a mutual friend asked the dealer how the visit went. ‘Did you feel comfortable and find a place to kick your feet up and read?’ ‘No, to both,’ answered Hughes, ‘it seems there was only art...

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Jens Faurschou Ocula Conversation Jens Faurschou Co-founder, Faurschou Foundation

When American artist Robert Rauschenberg opened his first and last gallery exhibition in China, (he died shortly thereafter), it was with Galleri Faurschou in Beijing, owned by Danish collectors Jens Faurschou, and his now former wife, Luise. Jens Faurschou took Ai Weiwei to see the show and the acclaimed Chinese artist, impressed by both the...

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In Related Press

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Sydney Biennale review – Ai Weiwei anchors rewarding show that comes of age in its 21st year Related Press Sydney Biennale review – Ai Weiwei anchors rewarding show that comes of age in its 21st year The Guardian : 16 March 2018

There is a simple and quiet work by the Belgian artist Michaël Borremans called The Bread (2012) in this year's Biennale of Sydney. It recalls the work of Flemish 15th century portraits, close and intimate, but it's a modern picture too. It's of a girl's upper body, dressed in a blue top, her hands in front, her gaze downwards. I was fairly certain...

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Sydney Biennale modestly comes of age with moments of curatorial brilliance Related Press Sydney Biennale modestly comes of age with moments of curatorial brilliance The Conversation : 16 March 2018

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...

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Mami Kataoka's highlights for the 21st Biennale of Sydney Related Press Mami Kataoka's highlights for the 21st Biennale of Sydney ArtsHub : 1 March 2018

When a biennale or a triennial hits the headlines the first statistic to be published is the roll call of artists: '...70 artists and artists collectives from 35 countries presented across 7 exhibition venues'. It is a mantra that celebrates the broadest inclusion, but Mami Kataoka, Artistic Director of the 21st Biennale of Sydney, is more...

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Picturing Ai Weiwei in Istanbul Related Press Picturing Ai Weiwei in Istanbul Hyperallergic : 5 January 2018

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,...

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In Related Video

Ai Weiwei "Golden Age" Wallpaper at Serpentine Galleries Related Video & Audio Ai Weiwei "Golden Age" Wallpaper at Serpentine Galleries Hypebeast : 3 May 2015

London's Serpentine Galleries unveils "Golden Age," a designer wallpaper by contemporary artist Ai Weiwei. The piece is a social commentary of sorts by the artist and features interlocking gold chains reminiscent of luxurious silk scarves, as well as surveillance cameras surrounding Twitter's Larry Bird logo.This is possibly an allusion...


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