Occupation: Conceptual Artist and Political Activist
Education: Beijing Film Academy, Art Students League
“Safe Sex,” 1983
“Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn,” 1995
“Bird’s Nest,” National Olympic Stadium, 2008
“Sunflower Seeds,” 2010
“Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads,” 2010
Ai Weiwei is a Chinese artist. A firm believer in free speech, he uses his art to give expression to his political ideas. He has regularly been in the news for his radical works often made with the criticism of the Chinese government in mind.
Early Years and Education
Ai Weiwei was born in Beijing to the respected modernist poet Ai Qing. Ai Qing was accused of “Rightism” in 1958, and the family was exiled to Beidahuang, and later to Shihezi, where he was made to work as a toilet cleaner. It was only in the 1970s that the Western world began asking about his whereabouts that his situation became better. The family was allowed to return to Beijing in 1976, after the Cultural Revolution had ended.
Ai Weiwei had always been interested in art, and been encouraged in this by his family and friends. Two years after the family’s return to Beijing, he enrolled at the Beijing Film Academy. He also met and became involved with a number of young artists who formed themselves into the group “Xingxing,” or Stars. They exhibited together over the next few years.
Move to the United States
Ai left for the United States in 1981, and settled in New York. His apartment was a place for other Chinese artist to meet and stay, if they weren’t residents of the city. He enrolled briefly at the Parsons School of Design, and in 1983 began taking classes at the Art Students League, where he worked under Bruce Dorfman and Knox Martin. He did all sorts of odd jobs to support himself. Although he had started out as a painter, he became more interested in sculpture over time, and he had a solo exhibition in 1988. Success, however, didn’t come his way.
However, he was fascinated with card games, and became an expert blackjack player, often playing in casinos in Atlantic City.
Return to China
Ai had been more or less out of touch with his family in China. In 1993 he got news that his father was ill. He made the decision to go back, and upon his return, settled in Beijing. He began working on a number of projects, including a set of three books with Feng Boyi, “Black Cover Book,” “White Cover Book,” and Grey Cover Book.”
Ai moved into the international scene with his work “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn,” which, in three photographs, shows him doing exactly that, with the last photograph picturing the smashed urn.
The Late Nineties and the Turn of the Century
Ai was responsible for founding the China Art Archives & Warehouse in 1997. He is still the institution’s director. In 1999 he made himself a studio that he designed himself, as he had always had an interest in architecture. As a result, he started his own design firm, Fake, four years later.
Ai began blogging in 2005. He wrote biting criticisms of the government and its ways of functioning. He used the platform to communicate with thousands of followers. It was shut down in 2009.
This was probably the result of his response to the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan. A large number of young school students died that day because of faulty building materials used in the construction of the school. Ai was publicly insistent on finding out why this had happened, and created the work “Remembering” in response. Ai was assaulted by the police when he was visiting Chengdu to testify at a colleague’s trial. He was beaten and could not attend the trial that was only a few hours away.
Meanwhile, Ai had been commissioned to work with the architects Herzog & de Meuron on the stadium that was constructed for the Beijing Olympics of 2008. He worked on it for a number of years before becoming disenchanted with the project and distancing himself from it.
Controversy and Arrest
Ai was put under effective house arrest towards the end of 2010. He had been building a new studio in Shanghai in the last few years, and it had apparently violated some restrictions. As a result, he was served with a notice for its demolition. He protested, as he had applied for all the permits that were still being processed. However, no regard was paid to him, and the building was destroyed in early 2011. He was arrested a few months later for “economic crimes.” He was detained for 81 days before being released. His movements are still regulated by the government; it was only in July 2015 that he was allowed a passport and the right to travel. He continues to work from Beijing, and continues voicing his criticisms through the Internet.
Ai released a music album in 2013, “Dumbass.”
1957 - Born in Beijing
1958 - The family moves to Beidahuang
1961 - Moves to Shihezi
1976 - The family returns to Beijing
1978 - Enrolls at the Beijing Film Academy; is cofounder of the group “Stars”
1981 - Moves to New York
1983 - Attends classes at the Art Students League
1993 - Returns to China
1997 - Founding of the China Art Archives & Warehouse
2003 - Starts his design firm Fake
2005 - Begins blogging
2010 - Arrested and jailed
2011 - Released from jail
1999 - Venice Biennale
2007 - Retrospective at the Today Art Museum, Beijing
2007 - Documenta XII, Kassel
2009 - Retrospective at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C.
2010 - Sao Paulo Biennale
2012 - Louisiana Museum
2012 - Humlebaek, Denmark
2012 - Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.
2012 - Museum de Pint, Tilburg
2013 - Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C.
Musée National d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris
Museum fur Asiatische Kunst, Berlin
Museum fur Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt
Museum DKM, Duisburg
Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles
Museum of Modern Art, New York
Museum of Arts and Design, New York
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Solomon R. Guggehheim Museum, New York
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing
Tate Modern, London
Saatchi Collection, London
Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane
Hara Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo
“Kunst aus China auf der Art Basel. Steigende Nachfrage,” by B. Hopfener
“A Kind of True Living,” by P. Tinari
“China Art Book,” by Uta Grosenick and Caspar Schübbe (Eds.)
“God Ai,” by Du Bin
“Ai Weiwei: Under Construction,” by Laura Murray
“Ai Weiwei,” by P. Tinari, C. Merewether, U. Meile, and P. Pakesch