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Ai Weiwei: Activist Artist

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  •  Ai Weiwei headshot. Photo: Jonathan Browning / Rex Features.
    Ai Weiwei. Photo: Jonathan Browning / Rex Features.
  • Sunflower Seeds' by Ai Weiwei, Tate Modern Turbine Hall. October 2010. Photo: Loz Pycock
    Sunflower Seeds' by Ai Weiwei, Tate Modern Turbine Hall. October 2010. Photo: Loz Pycock
  • Front of Haus der Kunst during Ai Weiwei exhibition "So sorry" in Munich, Germany
    Front of Haus der Kunst during Ai Weiwei exhibition "So sorry" in Munich, Germany

Leah M. | January 15, 2014

It seems like Ai Weiwei was born to be a political activist and an artist. Why? Did he always have that feeling inside him, that burning passion, or did the oppression that he and his family faced make him into one of the most famous and important contemporary artists today? Ai himself said “I have lived with political struggle since birth…my father tried to act as an individual, but he was treated as an enemy of the State.”

Ai’s father, Chinese poet Ai Qing, was denounced and the family was sent to live in a labour camp when Ai was only one. His family was later exiled for 16 years, so really it’s unsurprising that in his art, Ai is very concerned with social, cultural and political criticism. He also shines a light on oppression and corruption wherever he finds it. In Circle of Animals (2011), he copies the huge bronze heads that were ransacked by British and French troops during the 19th century. But his unrelenting focus is now on the Chinese government.

One of things I love about Ai’s art is the striking visual nature of his large scale work. In He Xie (2010), Ai’s 3,000 porcelain crabs take over any space they are displayed in. It’s a darkly humourous piece too because He Xie means “river crab” as well as “harmonious” and it’s a jab against the Chinese government’s slogan and their repression of the individual. In Fairytale (2007), Ai got 1,001 Chinese citizens to come and live in Kassel, Germany for 28 days and taped every step of their journey. The point of this piece was to call attention to people as individuals in an age of the power of the majority. In Sunflower Seeds (2010), one hundred million porcelain seeds were scattered on the ground in London’s Tate Modern gallery. People were encouraged to walk on or even roll around on them. These seeds were hand-painted one by one by over a thousand Chinese artisans and are a comment on our age of mass consumption.  

Now I don’t consider myself a super-artsy kind of person, but I’m drawn to the emotions behind Ai’s searing pieces against China’s dismal human rights record and the injustice that he sees. So Sorry (2009) is his blazing video and large-scale installation piece made out of 9,010 backpacks. Ai wants to remind people that governments and corporations say they’re sorry not because they want to repair the damage they’ve inflicted, but because they just want to sweep things under the rug as soon as possible. The backpacks represent the thousands of kids who lost their lives during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake due to corrupt government officials skimming money and not building schools to the appropriate standards. 

Ai has been locked in an escalating Orwellian struggle with the Chinese government since the earthquake. In 2009, he was detained and beaten by government officials in his own hotel room. Ai later had to have emergency brain surgery to stop the internal bleeding. In 2010, he was put under house arrest in order to stop him from holding a party to commemorate the unfair demolition of his newly built studio. In 2011, things really escalated when Ai was arrested and detained for 81 days for alleged “economic crimes”. The art and the international communities pretty much exploded and held demonstrations in the U.S. and the European Union decrying the Chinese government’s treatment of Ai and petitioning for his release. Although he was released, probably because of the global response, the government continues to harass Ai and his family. He was on bail initially, but even now that his bail is lifted, and it’s over two years later, he’s still not allowed to leave China because he’s “suspected of other crimes.” Clearly the government has no evidence and can’t prove anything, but they still have not given his passport back.

This has not stopped Ai from continuing his battle for human rights and freedom using whatever medium he can. He’s been known to use film, photography, sculpture, architecture and installation art. Last year he even released his first music album called “The Divine Comedy”. The album’s first single was titled “Dumbass” and he timed it to commemorate his release from his 81-day detention. Ai is also incredibly devoted to his fans and his causes and apparently spends up to 8 hours a day on the internet.

Even in the face of his ongoing persecution, Ai remains strong and unapologetic. This is the same man who has photos that show him giving the finger to monuments like The Eiffel Tower, the White House and Tiananmen Square in Study of Perspective (1995). That piece uses those irreverent gestures to show the distance between the individual and the state. His humour and guts also shine through on his 2009 near-nude portrait where he’s jumping in the air with a stuffed animal covering his naughty bits. The caption reads “grass mud horse covering the middle” but sounds the same in Chinese as “F*@k your mother, the Communist party central committee”. I simply adore this man and I hope Ai continues his fierce fight for human rights and keeps inspiring others to stand up for what’s right no matter where they live. Ai Weiwei: unbowed, provocative and like his documentary says, never sorry!