In 2009, Ai Weiwei began posting the names of the victims of the Wenchuan earthquake the previous year on his blog. Weiwei had personally visited the district to document these names from speaking with locals. What he found was a disproportionate amount of school children who perished because of poorly built schools. The Chinese government had attempted to cover this up.
Later that year, Ai Weiwei would take 9 thousand colorful children’s backpacks, reflective of the amount of deaths, and created a mural on the wall of the Haus der Kunst in Germany. In bright colors he spelled out:
“for seven years she lived happily on this earth,”
a quote from one victim’s mother.
Ai Weiwei was born in 1957, the son of poet Ai Qing, a member of the Chinese Communist Party until the Anti-Rightist campaign the year Weiwei was born. The family was sent to rural Northern China to hard labor until the death of Mao. In college he cofounded an avant-garde art group, and in 1980 relocated to New York City, where he became friends with other visionaries like Allen Ginsberg and studied Dadaist Marcel Duchamp closely.
Duchamp became famous for his “ready-made” work, or taking pre-made objects and changing them someone to create a piece of art. This is something Weiwei would replicate in his own career.
In 1993, Weiwei returned to Beijing where he stayed for some years—sometimes by government mandate. In 2011 he was detained for 81 days by Chinese authorities based on bogus tax-evasion charges and was barred from leaving the country (He has lived in Berlin since 2015). Still, that didn’t keep him down.
Ai Weiwei is one of the most visible contemporary artists, despite having been under a travel restriction and spending extended time behind the Chinese internet firewall. He is known as being a iconoclast, or a destroyer of images or culture. One of his most famous works is a photographic triptych of him dropping a 4,000 year old Han dynasty urn and it smashing to pieces.
Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995-2004)
A major theme of his work is dissent— against censorship, oppressions, and the rejection of traditions.
He is a vanguard of social media, going so far as to say that:
“the Internet and social media have become the only forms of democracy in China.”
On Twitter and his blog, he is boldly outspoken on the importance of free speech and the empowering aspect of social media. Most of his Twitter posts are those made in solidarity with various world protests. After the Chinese government fined him 2.4 million dollars (in US amounts) after that “tax evasion” thing, over 30,000 people donated 1.4 million from donors via the internet. In just a week. Weiwei has even described waking up and finding money folded into airplanes that were sent over his courtyard wall.
In China, where the government pushes relentlessly forward into the future, Weiwei reminds us to take a step back. With his art he employs hundreds of people in China to use traditional porcelin techniques to make millions and millions of sunflower seeds, which he then encourages museum visitors to take with them; he takes antiques that would be lost to an attic and makes them into a complicated, visual web.
Sunflower Seeds (2013)
(The sunflower seeds were an exhibition at the Tate Modern in London, and the 886 stools an installation at the 2013 Venice Biennale)
Part of why I love Ai Weiwei is that his work is not just about the study of a space or an object or even a simple theme. His work explores an entire culture and what it means to both inherent a legacy and be part of the future. The world is pretty absurd, and he doesn’t take himself too seriously. His work is reflective of China and also his own whimsical nature.
In contemporary, post-internet art, the idea of an artwork is key. Weiwei said he used to work in hotel rooms and airports more than an actual studio. There is no artist today who has more effectively co-opted the internet for art’s sake than Ai Weiwei. With the ubiquitous nature of social media, the artist can rarely just be an artist. Weiwei is an artist, of course, but also an activist, influencer, and idea factory.
His art is bold and unapologetic—exactly how he is.