Who Is Ai Weiwei?

Ai Weiwei is a fearless activist, political dissident, and one of the greatest living masters of contemporary art.

May 29, 2024By Anastasiia S. Kirpalov, MA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art

who is ai weiwei


Over the past several decades, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has become one of the most important and recognizable names in contemporary art, activism, and politics. He is never afraid and never apologetic. In his works, Ai Weiwei often highlights political hypocrisy, corruption, and the abuse of power. Read on to learn more about the life, work, and personality of Ai Weiwei.


Ai Weiwei’s Story

Ai Weiwei in Musée Cantonal de Zoologie in Lausanne, 2016. Source: Gazette Drouot


Ai Weiwei is one of the most famous and influential living artists. He works with film, photography, installation, and music. He also writes and works as an art curator. Weiwei was born in Beijing in 1957. His father was a famous Chinese poet Ai Qing, one of the brightest voices of his generation. Qing studied in Paris but he chose to return home and incorporate European poetic traditions into the works of his homeland. He was an openly left-wing and communist supporter and even traveled to the Soviet Union and Latin America in the early 1950s.


However, the emergence of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 shifted the categories of political loyalty. In 1958, Ai Qing’s poetry was deemed not political enough, and his travels were interpreted as the expression of internationalism and rejection of his Chinese identity. The poet and his family were exiled to a remote village in northwest China.


In his memoirs, Ai Weiwei recalls how the authorities searched their house, broke furniture and floor panels, scanned every book, and indiscreetly stole pretty objects that caught their attention. While in exile, Ai Weiwei’s father had to give up on his writing career and make a living by cleaning public toilets. Together with his son, he burned the family’s precious collection of books and his own writings to prevent them from causing more trouble.

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ai weiwei father
Ai Qing and Ai Weiwei at a labor camp, 1958. Source: Los Angeles Times


Growing up, Ai Weiwei understood the political undertones of his environment. He wanted to become an artist but he understood well that pursuing formal education in China meant planting oneself into the rigid and strict governmental system held in place by censorship and violence. Instead, he chose to study film in China and leave the country on the first occasion.


Ai Weiwei spent 12 years in the United States, right when the 1980s AIDS crisis was at its height. The artist often referred to the health crisis in his works from that period. During his studies in several schools, he mostly worked with photography and supported himself by doing construction work, painting portraits, babysitting, and gambling. His father’s illness caused Ai Weiwei’s return to China in 1993, subsequently triggering his long-standing battle with the Communist regime.


The Art of a Political Dissent

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Fragment of the installation Hansel and Gretel, by Ai Weiwei, 2017. Source: Herzog de Meuron


Initially, Ai Weiwei started to work with topics related to human rights violations. He worked on public campaigns too. One included local activists trying to ban selling and consuming cat meat in China. Subsequently, it became clear that the root of all problems lay within the government system, infested with corruption and cruelty. Concerned for its well-being, the government initiated a crackdown on activists and artists, and Ai Weiwei was one of the first targets.


In the following years, Ai Weiwei’s studio was demolished without prior warning (according to the official statement, it was demolished due to illegal construction) and the artist himself was repeatedly subjected to physical violence. He was also banned from leaving China, with his passport confiscated by the authorities in 2010. His art transformed as well, focusing on the topics of abuse of power, police brutality, and mass surveillance.


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Remembering, by Ai Weiwei, 2009, Munich. Source: Public Delivery


In 2008, a devastating earthquake killed 87,000 people in the province of Sichuan. At least five thousand were children who died under the collapsed school buildings. The root of the problem was not in the earthquake itself but in the poor construction of these buildings. The government allocated funds specifically to make schools safe and stable, but this money was never used for its purpose, dissolving in the hands of Sichuan officials. As a result, the buildings collapsed, burying students underneath. The Chinese government suppressed any information about the deceased and injured children and arrested their parents and activists who attempted to draw attention to the tragedy.


Ai Weiwei wanted to identify every child lost under the rubble. A year after the tragedy, the artist uncovered more than 5,000 names, but the authorities immediately blocked his attempts to publish the list. The same year, Ai Weiwei and his assistant were assaulted by police officers and beaten so severely that the artist required brain surgery. The struggle of his investigation and recovery is reflected in several films, including 4851 and So Sorry. Munich installation Remembering, constructed on the facade of Haus der Kunst, was a heart-wrenching memorial made out of 9,000 children’s school backpacks. The backpacks turn into a sentence in Chinese, a quote from one of the mothers who lost her child under the rubble, saying: “She lived in this world happily for seven years.”


ai weiwei sacred installation
Fragment of the diorama S.A.C.R.E.D., by Ai Weiwei, 2013. Source: The New York Times


In 2011, Ai Weiwei was arrested at Beijing Airport while attempting to fly to Hong Kong. As the artist was in custody, his studio and all property associated with him were thoroughly searched. As the officials were pillaging through Ai Weiwei’s belongings, he remembered his childhood and his father’s house, turned upside down by the same uniformed men.


The artist was subsequently imprisoned for 81 days on charges of tax evasion and economic crimes. Ai Weiwei’s arrest caused a great disturbance in the global artistic and political world, with hundreds of activists and politicians demanding his immediate release. His confinement experience later became the basis for the diorama installation S.A.C.R.E.D. This was a set of life-sized metal boxes presenting the everyday routine of the artist—sleeping, eating, and showering in the constant presence of two silent guards and with a bright light that was never switching off. Ai Weiwei was able to leave China in 2015 and he currently resides in Portugal.


Destruction as an Artistic Statement

Dropping the Han Dynasty Urn, by Ai Weiwei, 1995. Source: Smarthistory


One of Ai Weiwei’s most famous and shocking artistic projects was the photographic triptych titled Dropping the Han Dynasty Urn. In the early 1990s, he purchased two 2000-year-old vases from a Chinese farmer who was eager to get rid of them. Ai Weiwei was astonished by the indifference of the Chinese to their cultural heritage. He had already witnessed it before when the communist government was destroying temples, artworks, and literature pieces in order to write a new history of China.


Standing outside his mother’s house, he dropped these vases to the ground, shattering them into pieces. He looked neither shocked nor apologetic, with his provocative gaze turned straight into the camera. The act was blasphemous in its nature, but it became a call for action and a cry for help that tried to awaken the common sense of the public.


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Coca-Cola Vase, by Ai Weiwei, 2011. Source: Mutual Art


Apart from shattering the precious objects, Ai Weiwei repainted several of them, erasing their original cultural identity and replacing it with the Coca-Cola logo, covering the clay with strokes of bold and aggressive color.


During Ai Weisei’s retrospective show at the Perez Art Museum Miami in 2014, a man approached the installation of sixteen vases and the Dropping the Han Dynasty Urn print. Despite security warnings, the man grabbed one of the objects and shattered it. Upon detention, he introduced himself as a Miami artist Maximo Caminero. He said that he was eager to protest the lack of representation of local creatives in favor of big established names. Caminero insisted Weiwei’s work was a call to join his protest and fight systemic injustice.


Ai Weiwei, however, was not pleased with the act. Although he did not believe that the loss was big, he explained that the original Han urns belonged to him which allowed him to interact with them in any way he wanted. Caminero, on the contrary, took someone’s private property, turning artistic expression into an act of vandalism.


Ai Weiwei: Subverting Symbols

ai weiwei sunflower installation
Visitors interacting with Sunflower Seeds installation, by Ai Weiwei, 2010. Source: NPR


Many of Ai Weiwei’s works subvert the visual language of the Chinese political landscape, namely symbols and narratives connected to the Communist regime. One of his most famous works consisted of a hundred million porcelain sunflower seeds that were scattered inside Tate Modern for a special exhibition. The sunflower seed is a complex symbol of Chinese culture. During Ai Weiwei’s childhood, sunflower seeds were often the only things saving families from starvation during famines. At the same time, in Maoist propaganda, Mao Zedong was often identified with the sun to which sunflowers, or the Chinese citizens, reached out. Ai Weiwei hired hundreds of professional craftsmen to create each seed by hand. The seeds might seem identical, but they are all actually unique.


ai weiwei crabs installation
He Xie (River Crabs), by Ai Weiwei, 2011. Source: Public Delivery


The River Crabs installation is another similar project done by Ai Weiwei and it’s even more straightforward and bitter politically. In Chinese, He Xie signifies a word for a river crab, but it also sounds similar to harmony which is often used by the government promising to build a harmonious society. Subsequently, political dissidents used He Xie as a euphemism for censorship. The crabs, trampling each other, represent frantic attempts of the citizens to escape surveillance and the attempts of the government to tighten its grip.


The crab symbol first appeared in Ai Weiwei’s art in 2010 after the government demanded his studio be shut down. To prevent the artist from protesting, the officials placed him under house arrest. On his final day at the studio, he ordered several thousand cooked river crabs for everyone, symbolically expressing the essence of his conflict with the authority.

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By Anastasiia S. KirpalovMA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art Anastasiia holds a MA degree in Art history from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Previously she worked as a museum assistant, caring for the collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art. She specializes in topics of early abstract art, nineteenth-century gender, spiritualism and occultism. Outside of her work, she is interested in cult studies, criminology, and fashion history.