Ai Weiwei is unmistakably one of the most influential and equally controversial Chinese artists in recent history. He became famous worldwide in 2009 thanks to his highly celebrated art project, Remembering, an art piece he created to honor over 80,000 Chinese, most of whom were school children who perished in the May 2008 Sichuan earthquake. It was so captivating and popular that it rubbed the Chinese ruling regime the wrong way, and Ai Weiwei’s career has never been the same.
The sad side of Remembering aside, Ai Weiwei is one of the most exhilarating artists in the modern art world. He has managed to produce one impressive artwork after another. He is perhaps best known for his work on the Beijing National Stadium for the 2008 Summer Olympics in collaboration with the Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron. His focus on human rights and social change eventually led to his detainment by Chinese authorities for nearly three months in 2011. The Chinese government later supplied charges of tax evasion against Ai, which he vehemently denies. Since his detainment, Ai has been kept under constant surveillance by the government—a circumstance that has led him to create a series of new works.
What’s most remarkable about Weiwei is his ability to traverse between just about any art form, from political activism to design to visual arts and everything in between. Let’s delve right into the exciting world of Ai Weiwei, shall we?
For his one-man show in Munich Haus der Kunst in 2009, he created a simple yet moving installation on the façade of the museum. He used 9000 school backpacks to spell out the words “She lived happily for seven years in this world” in Mandarin. What a spectacle to behold, right? The story behind the installation, however, might be hard to swallow.
In the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, many school buildings were destroyed, killing thousands of children. When Ai Weiwei visited these sites he couldn’t but help notice study materials and school backpacks littered around in the debris. The sight was quite disheartening, but more so was the words of a mother of one of the deceased children – that she’d like her daughter to be remembered that “she lived happily for seven years in this world.”
Each backpack represents a life lost in the earthquake that took place in the Chinese province of Sichuan in 2008. Ai used five bright and vibrant colors, such as blue, red, yellow and green, reflecting the psyche of a child, their joy and innocence. In addition, the colors have been used for the Toys R Us logo.
Video of the installation
Audio: Ai Weiwei explains his installation
Ai Weiwei’s biography
Ai Weiwei is a contemporary artist and an avid Chinese civil rights activist, all rolled into one. He was born on 28 August 1957 to a poet father, Ai Qing, and a writer mother, Gao Ying. Like him, his father was a low-key activist and was consequently detained by the Nationalist regime on the suspicion that he was a Leftist. He was also imprisoned by Chairman Mao’s regime after the formation of the People’s Republic of China, this time on the suspicion of being a Rightist.
As expected from the communist Chinese government, the Qing family was exiled when Ai Weiwei was barely a year-old. For more than 20 years, his family remained in exile in a small rustic village in the province of Xinjiang. Needless to say, their life wasn’t a bed of roses, as his father was forced to do back-breaking manual labor, including cleaning public toilets. In his childhood, Ai had to learn versatile skills like making bricks and carpentry. These are the practical skills that later came in handy when he started creating his artworks.
As if things weren’t worse enough, education in this small village was nearly nonexistent and Ai had to rely on one book – a big encyclopedia – as his sole source of education and formal knowledge. This, however, didn’t extinguish his zeal and passion for learning. Even in his life as a child, his father’s poetic creativity and his family’s political stance made a huge impression on him, and still influence his work to this date.
Ai Weiwei’s education in Beijing
Following the death of Chairman Mao, Ai and his parents were allowed to come back from exile in 1976, ushering in a new chapter in Ai Weiwei’s life. It was at this juncture, at the age of 19, that he joined the Beijing Film Academy where he studied animation. It wasn’t long, however, before he was involved in the art scene in Beijing. In fact, he was one of the pioneering members of The Stars, a dissident group of political activists-cum-artists who advocated for the reintroduction of the concept of art as self-expression to China. This was a welcome move, following several decades of Chairman Mao’s anti-intellectual campaigns and anti-art policies. He also took to the streets with fellow artists and activists to agitate for democracy.
Ai Weiwei’s education in New York
After a few scuffles with the ruling regime, Ai moved to the United States in 1981. In the first few months there, he tried to spruce up his English as well as study in small bits at several different institutions. A year later, he relocated to New York City where he started his studies under Sean Scully at the Parsons School for Design. Unfortunately, he dropped out after only 6 months and had to scrape by as a street artist and work odd jobs.
He lived in New York for more than a decade, getting his feet wet in the city’s contemporary art scene and immersing himself in the scenic urban beauty. During that period, he took a multitude of photos and later condensed them into one of his celebrated works, New York Photos (1983-1993). What’s more, he made many trips around the United States and even became a blackjack player in the Atlanta casino scene. Funny enough, he was so good at blackjack that most American casino players still associate him with the game rather than being an artist.
Professional career as an artists
Ai’s career as an artist met with a few headwinds during its formative years. However, in 1988, after spending 7 years in the US, he debuted his solo show aptly titled “Old Shoes, Safe Sex” at Art Waves/Ethan Cohen Gallery in New York. Sadly, his father became ill and he had to go back to China to look after him. During this time, he wrote 3 popular books based on interviews he had with his favorite artists, including Jeff Koons, Marcel Duchamp, and Andy Warhol. In these books, he tried to join the dots between the old-school generation of artists and contemporary ones in Beijing.
After the passing of his father in 1996, he went ahead to build a studio in Beijing and in 2003 established FAKE Design, an architectural firm. Earlier in 1999, he made a break into the Chinese art scene when he was picked to represent the country at the Venice Biennale. Later that year, he co-curated “Fuck off” an exhibition in Shanghai. Despite being detained and restricted by the Chinese government, Ai Weiwei has continued to thrive as an artist. Perhaps his best work yet – and most controversial – is Remembering, an artwork he exhibited in Munich, Germany to honor Chinese children who lost their lives in the Sichuan Earthquake of 2008 due to government’s neglect.
Awards and Recognition
He received the 2008 Chinese Contemporary Arts Award for Lifetime Achievement. In 2010, he received the Das Glas der Vernunft at Kassel Citizen Award, Germany. In December 2011, he was a runner-up in the Time’s Person of the Year Award. A year later, he received the inaugural Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent of the Human Rights Foundation and the recipient of The International Center of Photography Cornell Capa Award. He has also been awarded the Appraisers Association Award for Excellence in the Arts, and Amnesty International’s Ambassador of Conscience Award, in Berlin, in 2013 and 2015 respectively.
All images by Ai Weiwei studio unless otherwise noted.