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.Read More
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.
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.
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).
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.