Understanding Ai Weiwei In 10 Works Of Art

Known for his installation art, eclectic oeuvre and political activism, Ai Weiwei is one of the most influential figures in the world of contemporary art. Read on to discover more about this legendary artist.

Jun 20, 2020By Mia Forbes, BA in Classics
Ai Weiwei portrait
Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei ranks among the most prominent and controversial figures in the world of contemporary art. Throughout the 21st century, he has produced a treasure trove of artwork, from documentaries to architecture, photography to music, sculptures to ceramics. The majority of these creations contain powerful political messages about human rights and democracy, which have brought admiration and criticism in equal measure. By looking at his ten most important masterpieces, this article reveals everything you need to know about this important artist.

Installation Art by Ai Weiwei


1001 Chairs, 2007

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1001 Chairs by Ai Weiwei, 2007, Kassel, Germany


In 2007, as Ai Weiwei was beginning to gain an international reputation, he was invited to take part in documenta 12 , a contemporary art exhibition held in Germany every five years. The theme was ‘Fairytale.’ For his contribution, Ai Weiwei imported 1001 Ming and Qing dynasty chairs from China, some of which were 500 years old. Visitors were not expectedly simply to admire the chairs from a distance, but actually encouraged to use them. Just as a fairytale blends normality and fantasy, Ai brought together art and reality with his interactive display. 


Not only did Ai introduce many European visitors to China’s artistic heritage, but along with his 1001 chairs, he also brought 1001 Chinese citizens to the exhibition. From different places, age groups and social classes, these people got to live out their own fairytale by exploring a new world of contemporary art. In this way, Ai Weiwei used his art to encourage multiculturalism and understanding within the international community. He later made a documentary about the Fairytale project, celebrating the positive impact it had made on both the Chinese and the European participants.


Sunflower Seeds, 2010

ai weiwei sunflower seeds
Sunflower Seeds by Ai Weiwei, 2010, Tate 


Perhaps his most famous installment, Ai Weiwei’s ‘Sunflower Seeds’ attracted tens of thousands of visitors to London’s Tate Modern when it was first unveiled in 2010. The ten tonne work consisted of a staggering 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds, each one handmade and meticulously painted. In its first incarnation, the installation was designed to be interactive. Visitors were invited to wade through the millions of seeds. This was later revised, perhaps due to concerns about the dangerous levels of ceramic dust, and the seeds have since been displayed in a number of different arrangements. 


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As well as being visually and physically arresting, the ‘Sunflower Seeds’ contained an important message. Under Ai’s direction, they were produced by 1,600 craftsmen in the city of Jingdezhen, historically famed for its porcelain, and were designed to represent the people of China. On one hand, the identical seeds symbolize the uniformity imposed by Chinese Communist Party, which discouraged any individuality that might destabilize its regime. On the other, the installation as a whole demonstrates the power of the masses, showing how together they can have a mighty impact. The sunflower seeds certainly made a splash at Sotheby’s in 2012, when 1 tonne of the tiny ceramic pieces were sold for an immense $782,500.


He Xie (River Crabs), 2010

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He Xie (3,200 River Crabs) by Ai Weiwei, 2010, Hirshhorn Museum, Washington D.C.


Similar in many ways to the ‘Sunflower Seeds,’ Ai Weiwei’s ‘River Crab’ installation featured 2300 river crabs crafted out of porcelain. Far from an ordered arrangement, the crustaceans were displayed in a huge pile, as if scooped up out of their native territory and dumped unceremoniously onto the gallery floor. The artist deliberately created this impression, which forces viewers to consider their role in the chaos and examine ideas of privacy, boundaries and freedom, issues close to Ai Weiwei’s heart. 


The installation also had subversive political undertones, which are hinted at in its Chinese title, ‘He Xie’. Although these words are translated as ‘river crab’, they also sound a lot like the word meaning ‘harmonious’, which is used in the propaganda of the Chinese Communist Party and ironically as a reference to the regime’s harsh censorship program. The crabs, like the sunflower seeds, are all uniform, reflecting the government’s attempts to homogenize their citizens, while also indicating that under Party leadership, the Chinese people are like helpless crabs caught in a net. 


Forever Bicycles, 2013 

forever bicycles toronto
Forever Bicycles installation by Ai Weiwei, 2013, Toronto, Canada


Ai Weiwei continued to produce visually arresting pieces of art with his 2013 creation, ‘Forever Bicycles’, which has since appeared in several incarnations. While studying in America, Ai became inspired by many of the artists that had been born, or found their place, in the United States. Among the most influential was Marcel Duchamp, whose 1913 ‘Bicycle Wheel’ Ai pays homage to with ‘Forever Bicycles’. 


The installation is made up of 1179 steel bike frames, which together form a range of kaleidoscopic geometrical shapes. The particular form of the sculpture has been changed over the years, each giving the work a new lease of life. The Forever bicycle brand is one of the most prominent producers of bikes in Shanghai, where tens of thousands of citizens rely on them as their primary means of transportation. The plethora of bikes also reflects the mass production associated with China, as well as the insatiable commercial demands of Europe and America. In this way, Ai Weiwei once again used art to bring together ideas about the East and West. 


Ai Weiwei’s Architectural Work 


“The Bird’s Nest” National Olympic Stadium, 2008 

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“The Bird’s Nest” National Olympic Stadium, 2005-08, Beijing, China


In preparation for the 2008 Olympic Games, hosted by China, Ai Weiwei collaborated with Swiss architecture firm Herzog and de Meuron to create the iconic ‘Bird’s Nest’ stadium in his hometown of Beijing. The design for the stadium was inspired by the nation’s cultural heritage. When putting together inspiration, Ai studied Chinese urns and vases and may have looked to local cuisine for ideas; in China, edible bird’s nests are considered a delicacy!


Although this project helped consolidate Ai Weiwei’s international reputation as a highly original and creative artist, it has since been a source of regret. Despite playing such a key role in the preparations, Ai boycotted the Olympics as a protest against the Chinese regime. He felt that the event’s celebration and pride were too much at odds with the terrible suffering experienced by vast swathes of the population. 


Ordos 100 Project, 2012

ai weiweri ordos 100
An abandoned villa from the Ordos 100 project by Ai Weiwei and Herzog & de Meuron by Raphael Olivier


Although much of Ai Weiwei’s work has met with international acclaim, not all of his projects have been so successful. In the early 2000s, Ai launched a campaign with the same architects with whom he would later collaborate on the designs for the ‘Bird’s Nest’ stadium. They invited 100 architects from across the world to design a unique villa; the plan was that the buildings would form a new community in a remote area of Mongolia, called Ordos. In 2008, the international group visited the site, where they convened a further two times in the subsequent years. These site visits were the subject of another Ai Weiwei documentary, made in 2011.


Several of the plans did take shape, with construction starting on several new and impressive villas across Ordos, but only one building was completed: the Art Museum. The project eventually dwindled into obscurity, perhaps due to lack of funding, interest or time on Ai Weiwei’s part. Sadly, Ordos 100 is generally considered a failure, and the location itself has become something of a ‘ghost town’.


Art of Political Dissent by Ai Weiwei 


Hua Hao Yue Yuan, 2010 

dumbass music video ai weiwei
Dumbass music video by Ai Weiwei, 2010


In the same year that he exhibited both ‘Sunflower Seeds’ and ‘River Crabs’, Ai Weiwei also made one of his most important documentaries. The two-hour long video, ironically entitled ‘Hua Hao Yue Yuan’ (‘blissful harmony’), records the experiences of two Chinese activists whose protests against the Chinese Communist Party lead to their arrest and abuse at the hands of state officials. Ai Weiwei interviews the victims, witnesses and commentators to bring together a variety of views about the recent government crackdown on increasing dissent.


Ai Weiwei had previously made a number of other documentaries exploring and exposing the problems of Chinese politics, such as the government cover-up in the aftermath of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake that killed over 5000 students. Perhaps because it revealed the more general and systematic corruption at work, however, ‘Hua Hao Yue Yuan’ became more widely circulated than any of Ai’s earlier videos. Along with the increased awareness that the artist sought, the documentary also attracted the less welcome attention of the Chinese government…


So Sorry, 2011

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Ai Weiwei sending a message to the Chinese police after getting beaten filming So Sorry


The following year, with tensions between Ai Weiwei and the Chinese Government steadily mounting, another documentary was released, once again with a sarcastic title. ‘So Sorry’ traces the artist’s attempts to win justice for the students who had died in the Sichuan earthquake, a disaster that he had become passionate about and was determined to properly investigate. His enquiries into construction faults and state corruption led to direct conflict with the Chengdu police force, who beat Ai Weiwei so violently that he was forced to undergo emergency brain surgery, all of which was amazingly caught on camera. 


The documentary marks the start of Ai Weiwei’s most controversial period, in which his outspoken protests led to his surveillance and detention by the state. It also provided inspiration for the award-winning 2012 biographical documentary about his struggles: ‘Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry’.


S.A.C.R.E.D, 2013 

S A C R E D Ai weiwei
S.A.C.R.E.D. by Ai Weiwei, 2013, Lisson Gallery


When Ai Weiwei was only one year old, his family was sent to a government labour camp on the grounds that his father, a noted poet, was producing right-wing work. Ai therefore lived in exile for most of his childhood, before returning to Beijing as a young man. Unfortunately, he was destined to repeat his experience in a state detention centre, as in 2011 he was arrested by the Beijing police and held for almost 3 months without charge. 


Upon his release, Ai created one of his most remarkable pieces of visual art, entitled ‘S.A.C.R.E.D’. The installation consists of six grim-looking metal cuboids, each with a small hole around shoulder height. Through these gaps, viewers can peer into the structures’ hollow centers; within each one is a different scene from Ai’s imprisonment modeled out of fiberglass. Most of them show three figures: Ai Weiwei himself and two severe guards, dressed in military uniform. In one diorama they monitor him while he showers, while in another they watch him sleeping. These models put the viewer in much the same role as the guards, giving uncanny insight into the injustice of the Chinese justice system.


Ai Weiwei’s Hansel and Gretel, 2017

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Hansel and Gretel by Ai Weiwei, 2017, New York


One of his latest major projects, the 2017 ‘Hansel and Gretel’ installment in New York City was designed to highlight the potential (and potential dangers!) of surveillance technology. Featuring CCTV cameras, facial recognition software, drones, beacons and projections, the experience immersed visitors in a world where their every move was being monitored. The mystery of who is watching and what they’re looking out for created a sense of dystopian unease. Ai undoubtedly drew on his experience in Chinese detention centres to recreate the oppressive atmosphere. Although it only ran for two months, ‘Hansel and Gretel’ was hailed as one of Ai Weiwei’s most thought-provoking installations. 


In recent years, Ai Weiwei has lived between Germany and England, continuing to produce highly political, opinionated works of art. He routinely broadcasts news about his activism and art on his Twitter, and you can even listen to some of his subversive tunes on Spotify

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By Mia ForbesBA in ClassicsMia is a contributing writer from London, with a passion for literature and history. She holds a BA in Classics from the University of Cambridge. Both at work and at home, Mia is surrounded by books, and enjoys writing about great works of fiction and poetry. Her first translation is due to be published next year.