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Who is Ai Weiwei?

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Controversial. Inspirational. Comical. Respected.  These are all words that have been used to describe the works of contemporary Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.

A new exhibit of his work at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, titled According To What?, will feature a large collection of Weiwei's work including photography, sculpture, painted vases and others. This exhibit has the largest footprint  of any to ever come through the IMA and engineers had to be called in to make sure the museum could structurally handle the installations including the 38 tons of rebar recovered from decimated schools after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake that make up a piece called 'Straight'.

Ai Weiwei is a contemporary Chinese artist and activist that challenges modern Chinese concepts including the Chinese government.
  • Ai Weiwei is a contemporary Chinese artist and activist that challenges modern Chinese concepts including the Chinese government.

Butler University's art professor Elizabeth Mix says Ai Weiwei's work is not only visually appealing, but also brave. 

"Visitors at this exhibition who don't read the labels might not get that it's controversial," Mix says. "There is a layer in the work that implies a criticism of his government, whether it be their repression of free speech, their response to natural disasters or their treatment of Weiwei himself."

Ai and his work has earned him a place as the symbol of the struggle for human rights in China. 

Born Aug. 28, 1957, the 55-year-old artist has made quite the reputation for himself.  

In 1978, Ai Weiwei began his art career in film by enrolling in the Beijing Film Academy.  Within months, he joined The Stars Group, which presented works that used banned Western styles following the Cultural Revolution and began his career as activist.

Eventually, Ai moved on to photography and some of his first photographs were titled "Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn."  In three pictures, Ai is shown purposely smashing a priceless Chinese artifact from more than 2,000 years ago. 

He then began using other ancient urns in his work. Often times, he would paint modern images on them, such as the Coca-Cola logo to show the dramatic change in what people value.

Ai Weiwei is probably best known as the artistic director for the "Bird's Nest" Olympic Stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Although he designed the stadium, he withdrew from participating in the opening ceremonies after he became highly critical of the games. He saw the games as a way to show China's strength by their number of gold medals.

Ai designed the Bird's Nest stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.
  • Ai designed the Bird's Nest stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

When Weiwei spoke out about his feelings, the government saw him as a dangerous threat.

In an interview with The Daily Beast, Ai said:  "It's difficult for the Chinese people to ever know the truth. It is vital that we try to bring that truth to life."

Which is what Ai Weiwei tries to do in his artwork.

Much of Ai's work is focused around the Sichuan earthquake in 2008 where many schools were completed destroyed and thousands of children died. Every government building, though, still stood and this contrast sparked Ai to investigate. One of his first projects was to document every child who was killed, collecting their names, ages and other information.

Weiwei would ask anyone who knew of names of the dead to send them to him.  Through his blog and Twitter account, he received more than 5,000 names.   

The names he has collected are printed in Chinese on white papers taped to his office wall at FAKE Design in Beijing. When he printed the children's names on his blog, the Chinese government censors shut it down.

Three days later, he was arrested on charges of inciting subversion of state power. Police beat him so badly that he was sent to the hospital requiring surgery that would drain blood from his brain.

After his surgery, he photographed himself holding a bag that contained the drained fluids.

In one of his pieces not appearing at the IMA, he used 9,000 children's backpacks to spell out the sentence "She lived happily for seven years in this world" in Chinese characters.  The quote came from a mother whose child died. 

In an installation called "Remembering" Ai used thousands of children's backpacks to spell out a sentence in Chinese characters to commemorate the school children who died in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.
  • In an installation called "Remembering" Ai used thousands of children's backpacks to spell out a sentence in Chinese characters to commemorate the school children who died in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

The Chinese government continued their harassment of Ai. In April 2011, the artist was arrested in Beijing's airport.  He was held for supposed economic crimes, including not paying his taxes. For 81 days, he was questioned about the "Jasmine Revolution" protests in China, along with writings that could be considered subversion. 

Although he was released, Weiwei is forbidden to leave Beijing and the government has taken away his passport. He must request permission from the government if he wants to leave his home or work.

He is under intense surveillance, he told The Economist, and believes his phones and computers are tapped. Aware of at least 15 police surveillance cameras watching him, he added four cameras of his own.

These cameras covered all of his movements and streamed live footage to the website, weiwei.com.  He said that he wanted to give his privacy as a gift to people who care about him or who have any interest in him.

"I wanted to give this gift not only to the public, but also to the Public Security Bureau, because they are so eager to know about me," he told The Economist.  "I wanted them to know what I'm doing in the office, who I meet in this garden and how I've been sleeping."

Within two days, the police shut down his cameras. Now, his website only shows a blank white page.

Despite Ai's international fame and bold activism in China, he is not well-known in his own country due to censorship. Googling Ai Weiwei in China will show no results.

Although his work infuriates the Chinese government, it also has touched people.

"What makes him important," Mix said, "is that he has continued to make work despite the risk of continued punishment by his government."

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