The journey of the most controversial Chinese Artist and Activist – Ai Weiwei
Ai Weiwei the world-famous Chinese activist, artist, architect, photographer, filmmaker, social critic, and blogger is renowned for making strong political statements through a wide range of artistic mediums. He has used art forms like photography, sculpture, installation art, ceramic art, and film in ‘excessivism’ to voice and openly criticize the Chinese Government’s stand on democracy, human rights, and social values. Born in Beijing in 1957 and currently residing in Cambridge UK, Ai is the most prominent and controversial contemporary artist and cultural figure who introduced the world to China’s artistic heritage. His famous work includes the Sunflower Seeds (2010) exhibit at the Tate Modern, where he depicted the curse of mass consumption and the loss of individuality by scattering 100 million porcelain “seeds” hand-painted by 1,600 Chinese artisans.
Growing up in China
Ai, was born on August 28, 1957. In 1958, the family was exiled since Ai’s father Ai Qing, the Chinese poet was a rightist. From 1958 to 1961 they lived in the labor camp at Beidahuang, Heilongjiang in north-eastern China and from 1961 to 1976 were exiled to Shihezi, in the deserts of Xinjiang. In 1976, after the end of the Cultural Revolution with the death of Mao Zedong the family returned to Beijing.
In 1978, Ai enrolled in the Beijing Film Academy to study animation. Here he founded the early avant-garde art group called the “Stars”.
Living in America
Following China’s reform in 1980, Ai was among the first 161 students allowed to leave China to pursue higher education. From 1981-1983, he studied English at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of California, Berkeley. From 1983 -1986 he moved to New York City and enrolled at the Parsons School of Design. He also attended the Art Students League of New York but did not complete his terms. Instead, he began to draw street portraits and work odd jobs to sustain a living. While living in New York till 1983, Ai began to draw influences from the likes of beat poet Allen Ginsberg and artists Andy Warhol, Marcel Duchamp, Jasper Johns, and Joseph Beuys.
Just as Ai’s, unusual work was beginning to create a flutter in New York, he had to return to China.
Ai Weiwei Returns to China
In 1993, Ai returned to China as his father fell ill. Back home a part of him continued being the free American with anti-authoritarian beliefs.
In 1993, while opening an art gallery was considered illegal in China, Ai founded the China Art Archives and Warehouse (CAAW) with some assistance and support by the late Hans van Dijk, a Dutch private art dealer living in Beijing.
Ai held exhibitions at CAAW and invited artists, curators, and writers to Beijing introducing China to the world of art and vice versa.With co-author Feng Boyi he published a series of 3 books of modern artists of China known as Black Cover Book (1994), White Cover Book (1995), and Gray Cover Book (1997). In 2000, he co-curated the art exhibition Fuck Off with curator Feng Boyi in Shanghai, China that began to attract eyeballs.
In 1996 he began to build his own home and completed it in less than 65 days at a cost of USD 10,000. This prompted Ai the architect to move to Caochangdi, near Beijing, and built a studio there in 1999. In 2003, he set up an architectural firm called FAKE Design. Not fake though his designs were absolutely matchless!
In 2007, acknowledging Ai Weiwei’s work the Chinese government selected Ai to collaborate with the Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron to design the iconic ‘Bird’s Nest’ Olympic Stadium for the Beijing Games, 2008.
In the same year during the Wenchuan earthquake when many schools were destroyed burying young students inside Ai unearthed and made public the corruption in Chinese government that lead to the collapse of these poorly constructed school buildings called “tofu-dreg schools”.
From setting up an illegal art gallery to portraying the real China to the outside world, Ai had become China’s most vocal political activist using his art form to highlight various issues. On January 1, 2011, Ai’s studio was knocked down. Then on April 3, 2011, the government stopped Ai Weiwei at Beijing Capital International Airport. The Chinese government put him under house arrest for 81 days for ’economic crimes’ without filing a charge, confiscated his passport and refused him any further travel papers. Even after global governments, human rights groups, and art institutions intervened for his release, China refused to bow down under international pressure and continued to hold him without even notifying his family on his whereabouts.
In 2015, when Ai got back his passport he moved to Berlin and later shifted to Cambridge, UK in 2019, from where he continues to internationally travel to exhibit his work.
The Controversial artist
Some of Ai’s best-known works which openly criticized the Chinese government led them to allow him to leave the county.
- Ai’s provocative self-nudes with only a toy alpaca hiding his modesty were captioned ‘grass mud horse covering the middle’ which when loosely translated in Chinese read, ‘Fuck your mother, the party central committee’.
- His infamous Coca Cola Vase of 1994 was a Han Dynasty urn adorned with the American soft-drink logo.
- In 1995, Ai photographed himself dropping a valuable urn on the floor and spreading white paint over hundreds of other urns. This picture was considered sacrilege by the antique traders of China.
- In 2000, Ai with Feng Boyi curated an exhibition titled “Fuck Off” to coincide with the Shanghai Biennial. Ai exhibited photographs titled “Perspective.” Each photograph showed a close-up of his hand giving the finger to a cultural icon—the Washington Monument, the Forbidden City.
- The 2010 River Crab installation showed 2300 crabs crafted from porcelain. Its Chinese title ‘Hi Xie’ hinted at the Chinese harsh censorship program to homogenize their citizens.
- 2013 Forever Bicycles another installation at Toronto Canada, made up of 1179 bike highlighted the apathy of mass production in China that catered to the insatiable commercial demands of America and Europe.
While Ai Weiwei became an ambassador for Reporters Without Borders in 2013, he also won numerous awards, received honorary doctorates, and appointed honorary academician. A few of his notable awards include: –
- Chinese Contemporary Art Awards, Lifetime Achievement.
- GQ Men of the Year 2009, Moral Courage (Germany).
- International Architecture Awards, Anthenaeum Museum of Architecture and Design, Chicago.
- Das Glas der Vernunft (The Prism of Reason), Kassel Citizen Award, Kassel, Germany.
- Wallpaper Design Award for the Tsai Residence, which won Best New Private House.
- Asteroid 83598 Aiweiwei, discovered by Bill Yeung named after Ai.
- Runner-up, Time’s Person of the Year award.
- Wall Street Journal Innovators Award (Art).
- The Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation Award for Courage.
- Skowhegan Medal for Multidisciplinary Art, New York City, USA.
- Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent of the Human Rights Foundation.
- The International Center of Photography Cornell Capa Award.
- Conde Nast Traveler for 12 Visionaries along with Hillary Clinton, Kofi Annan, and Nelson Mandela.
- Appraisers Association Award for Excellence in the Arts.
- Amnesty Media Award.
- St. Moritz Art Masters Lifetime Achievement Award by Cartier.
- ‘Spirit of Independence’ award at the Beijing Independent Film Festival for his documentary Ping’an Yueqing (2012).
- Amnesty International’s Ambassador of Conscience Award, Berlin.
- Bambi Award for ‘Courage’.
- Marina Kellen French Outstanding Contributions to the Arts Award.
(Awards credits: Ai Weiwei Wikipedia)
While Ai’s masterpieces continue to sell at Sotheby’s and collections around the world ranging between USD 10,000 and USD 300,000 he continues to reinvent his art through newer forms like virtual reality.
Ai Weiwei in an interview said, “I left telling my mother that I would return only when I was more famous than Picasso.”
If Picasso was here he would undeniably say…Yes, it is time to return HOME, Ai.