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b. 1957, China

Ai Weiwei Biography

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.

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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

Ai Weiwei Featured Artworks

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Souvenir from Shanghai by Ai Weiwei contemporary artwork
Ai WeiweiSouvenir from Shanghai, 2012Concrete and brick rubble from Ai Weiwei's destroyed Shanghai studio, set in a wooden frame
260 x 380 x 170 cm
Lisson Gallery Contact Gallery
Tyre by Ai Weiwei contemporary artwork
Ai WeiweiTyre, 2017Marble
123 x 103 x 110 cm
Chambers Fine Art Contact Gallery
Forever (Stainless Steel Bicycles in Silvery, duo) by Ai Weiwei contemporary artwork
Ai WeiweiForever (Stainless Steel Bicycles in Silvery, duo), 2013Stainless steel
146.5 x 167.5 x 14.7 cm
Chambers Fine Art Contact Gallery
Fairytale People by Ai Weiwei contemporary artwork
Ai WeiweiFairytale People, 2007C-print
100 x 100 cm
Galerie Urs Meile Enquire
Fairytale People by Ai Weiwei contemporary artwork
Ai WeiweiFairytale People, 2007C-print
100 x 100 cm
Galerie Urs Meile Enquire
Law of the Journey by Ai Weiwei contemporary artwork
Ai WeiweiLaw of the Journey, 2017Reinforced PVC
1640 x 580 x 350 cm
Tang Contemporary Art Contact Gallery
Frame by Ai Weiwei contemporary artwork
Ai WeiweiFrameRosewood
100 x 100 cm
Not for sale
Duddell's

Ai Weiwei Recent Exhibitions

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Contemporary art exhibition, Ai Weiwei, Roots at Lisson Gallery, London
Closed
2 October–2 November 2019 Ai Weiwei Roots Lisson GalleryBell Street, London
Contemporary art exhibition, Ai Weiwei, Ai Weiwei at Galerie Urs Meile, Lucerne
Closed
13 November 2014–21 February 2015 Ai Weiwei Galerie Urs MeileLucerne
Contemporary art exhibition, Group show, FRAMED: AI WEIWEI AND HONG KONG ARTISTS at Duddell's, Hong Kong
Closed
5 November 2013–7 February 2014 Group show FRAMED: AI WEIWEI AND HONG KONG ARTISTS Duddell'sHong Kong

Ai Weiwei Represented By

Chambers Fine Art contemporary art gallery in Beijing, China Chambers Fine Art New York, Beijing
Galerie Urs Meile contemporary art gallery in Beijing, China Galerie Urs Meile Beijing, Lucerne
Lisson Gallery contemporary art gallery in Lisson Street, London, United Kingdom Lisson Gallery London, New York, Shanghai
Tang Contemporary Art contemporary art gallery in Beijing, China Tang Contemporary Art Hong Kong, Beijing, Bangkok

Ai Weiwei In Ocula Magazine

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Gallery Weekend Beijing: Exhibition Lowdown Ocula Report Gallery Weekend Beijing: Exhibition Lowdown By Tessa Moldan, Beijing

Between 22 and 31 May, Gallery Weekend Beijing returns for its fourth edition across 798 Art District. This lowdown provides a selection of exhibitions to catch as spring turns to summer in the capital.

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Taipei Connections: Eleven Works to Collect Ocula Insight Taipei Connections: Eleven Works to Collect By Sam Gaskin, Taipei

Ai Weiwei, Odyssey (2016) at Chambers Fine Art Resembling paintings on a Grecian urn, this wallpaper is an epic narrative about the plight of refugees, one of Ai Weiwei's chief concerns in recent years. Ai himself fled China for Europe after years of violence and intimidation. Dóra Maurer, Overlappings 34 (2006). Acrylic on canvas...

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The Latest: Snapchat Spin Paintings, Gonzalez-Torres Fortune Cookies, and More Ocula News The Latest: Snapchat Spin Paintings, Gonzalez-Torres Fortune Cookies, and More Hong Kong, 6 May 2020

This week's need-to-know art news, including the collapse of Sydney's Carriageworks, the winner of the Pulitzer-prize for criticism, and relaxed Kickstarter rules for institutions.

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Taipei Dangdai 2020: Local and Global Ocula Report Taipei Dangdai 2020: Local and Global By Penny Liu, Taipei

At the second edition of Taipei Dangdai, western capital gestures towards Taipei's rising status in the global art world, while alluding to 'a token blessing from the West to Taiwanese society, which is known to have a strong collector base.'

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Ai Weiwei In Related Press

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Museum of Fine Arts, Houston Announces 7 Site-Specific Installations Related Press Museum of Fine Arts, Houston Announces 7 Site-Specific Installations 5 December 2019, The New York Times

The artists are El Anatsui, Byung Hoon Choi, Carlos Cruz-Diez, Olafur Eliasson, Trenton Doyle Hancock, Cristina Iglesias and Ai Weiwei, and they were commissioned to create a mix of sculptures, light installations and suspended artworks for the 14-acre premises, known as the Susan and Fayez S. Sarofim Campus.

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How do art fairs contribute to the climate crisis? Related Press How do art fairs contribute to the climate crisis? 7 June 2019, The Financial Times

As the realities of a global climate emergency begin to sink in, the well-heeled visitors to this year's Art Basel fair can expect to see work that reflects the concerns of the world outside–at least to a certain extent. 'Studies show that the wealthier you are, the bigger your carbon footprint, so it's great that we are now seeing this addressed...

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Stars Art Group, China's artistic freedom fighters, celebrate 40th anniversary Related Press Stars Art Group, China's artistic freedom fighters, celebrate 40th anniversary 29 March 2019, The Art Newspaper

On the eve of Art Basel in Hong Kong's private view on Wednesday, the Beijing-based artist Huang Rui took to the streets of Central for a paint-splashed performance about the cyclical nature of history. The piece was a tribute to Lee Wen, the pioneering Asian performance artist who died early this month.

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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 16 March 2018, The Guardian

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...

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Ai Weiwei In Video & Audio

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

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...

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