b. 1957, China

Ai Weiwei Artworks

A vocal activist, Ai Weiwei has produced works that have attracted both controversy and state censure. He is well-known for his criticism of the Chinese government, an authority that employs strict censorship and is known for punishing dissenters, and is widely credited with bringing to light human rights issues in China to an international audience.

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Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn

Ai's first significant performance work, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995), was met with widespread outrage. Depicting Ai dropping a 2000-year-old urn at his feet, the work 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 has come to characterise Ai's career, and is surmised in a series of photographs titled 'Study of Perspective' (1995–2003), which depict Ai giving the middle finger to structures of power such as Tiananmen Square, Hong Kong's skyline, the Eiffel Tower, and the White House.

Government Clashes

Ai and the Communist Party first clashed in 2005, when the largest internet platform in China invited the artist to begin blogging. Ai posted a constant stream of social commentary, political criticisms, personal writing, 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 then took to Twitter and Instagram (both banned in China), where his hundreds of thousands of followers are still able to access images of his life and work.

Sichuan Earthquake

In 2008, tragedy struck when 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 contributed to 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, Ai Weiwei in the Elevator When Taken into Custody by the Police (2009), shows him in the elevator with the policemen after the attack. 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. In 2011, 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 questioned. After almost three months of harsh imprisonment, Ai was released after being charged with 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).

Technique and Later Themes

A multiplicity of materials 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 for his installation Bang at the 2013 Venice Biennale.

Ai's focus has since included 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 (2017–2018) 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.

Browse Artworks
Hanging Man in Porcelain by Ai Weiwei contemporary artwork sculpture
Ai Weiwei Hanging Man in Porcelain, 2009 Porcelain in Huang Huali wood frame, iron wood
50 x 43 x 3 cm
Tang Contemporary Art Contact Gallery
Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn by Ai Weiwei contemporary artwork photography
Ai Weiwei Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995–2021 Triptych: LightJet print on Ilford Baryta
Chambers Fine Art Contact Gallery
Obsidian I by Ai Weiwei contemporary artwork photography, print
Ai Weiwei Obsidian I, 2021 Black and white print
255 x 152 cm
Chambers Fine Art Contact Gallery
Obsidian II by Ai Weiwei contemporary artwork photography, print
Ai Weiwei Obsidian II, 2021 Black and white print
255 x 152 cm
Chambers Fine Art Contact Gallery
£ by Ai Weiwei contemporary artwork painting
Ai Weiwei £, 2020 Litho-print on Somerset paper
29.7 x 21 cm
Dellasposa Gallery Contact Gallery
Revolt by Ai Weiwei contemporary artwork sculpture
Ai Weiwei Revolt, 2019 Marble
80 x 48 x 48 cm
Tang Contemporary Art Contact Gallery
Marble Takeout Container by Ai Weiwei contemporary artwork sculpture
Ai Weiwei Marble Takeout Container, 2015 Marble
18 x 13 x 5 cm
Tang Contemporary Art Contact Gallery
Marble Toilet Paper by Ai Weiwei contemporary artwork sculpture
Ai Weiwei Marble Toilet Paper, 2020 Marble
14 x 14 x 13.5 cm
Tang Contemporary Art Contact Gallery
Shelter by Ai Weiwei contemporary artwork sculpture
Ai Weiwei Shelter, 2014 Marble
95 x 69 x 73 cm
Tang Contemporary Art Contact Gallery
Marble Helmet by Ai Weiwei contemporary artwork sculpture
Ai Weiwei Marble Helmet, 2015 Marble
28 x 18 x 15 cm
Tang Contemporary Art Contact Gallery
Ring W by Ai Weiwei contemporary artwork sculpture
Ai Weiwei Ring W, 2018 Metal
16.64 x 25.83 x 28.87 cm
Tang Contemporary Art Contact Gallery
Ring M by Ai Weiwei contemporary artwork sculpture
Ai Weiwei Ring M, 2018 Metal
18.63 x 26.67 x 30.28 cm
Tang Contemporary Art Contact Gallery
Zodiac by Ai Weiwei contemporary artwork sculpture
Ai Weiwei Zodiac, 2018 LEGO bricks
Tang Contemporary Art Contact Gallery
Tyre by Ai Weiwei contemporary artwork sculpture
Ai Weiwei Tyre, 2017 Marble
123 x 103 x 110 cm
Chambers Fine Art Contact Gallery
Forever (Stainless Steel Bicycles in Silvery, duo) by Ai Weiwei contemporary artwork sculpture
Ai Weiwei Forever (Stainless Steel Bicycles in Silvery, duo), 2013 Stainless steel
146.5 x 167.5 x 14.7 cm
Chambers Fine Art Contact Gallery
Hands without Bodies by Ai Weiwei contemporary artwork sculpture
Ai Weiwei Hands without Bodies, 2018 Marble
18 x 58 x 15 cm
Chambers Fine Art Contact Gallery
Law of the Journey (Prototype A) by Ai Weiwei contemporary artwork sculpture
Ai Weiwei Law of the Journey (Prototype A), 2016 Reinforced PVC
580 x 1640 x 350 cm
Chambers Fine Art Contact Gallery
Odyssey by Ai Weiwei contemporary artwork painting
Ai Weiwei Odyssey, 2016 Wallpaper
16800 x 16800 cm
Chambers Fine Art Contact Gallery
Fairytale People by Ai Weiwei contemporary artwork photography
Ai Weiwei Fairytale People, 2007 C-print
100 x 100 cm
Galerie Urs Meile Enquire
Fairytale People by Ai Weiwei contemporary artwork photography
Ai Weiwei Fairytale People, 2007 C-print
100 x 100 cm
Galerie Urs Meile Enquire
Fairytale People by Ai Weiwei contemporary artwork photography
Ai Weiwei Fairytale People, 2007 C-print
100 x 100 cm
Galerie Urs Meile Enquire
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