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Activism Through Art: A Closer Look at Ai Weiwei and his Artistic Legacy

You may recognize Ai Weiwei as the creator of the Bird’s Nest, otherwise known as the Beijing National Stadium. He is the most famous contemporary Chinese artist and works in installation, sculpture, literature, architecture, and film, but most notably known for his political activism through his art.


Not a reader? No worries. Learn all the fun facts about Ai Weiwei in this short YouTube video:




Ai Weiwei’s Upbringing and Family’s Exile


Ai Weiwei with his father as a child

Ai Weiwei was born in Beijing, China in 1957. His father, Ai Qing, was a renowned Chinese poet. After Ai Weiwei’s birth, his father was accused of being a rightist by the Chinese communist government. Because of this, his family was banished to Heilongjiang, and then to the northwestern autonomous region of Xinjiang. They were allowed to return to Beijing in 1976. 



Ai Weiwei’s Introduction into the Art World


Ai Weiwei Hanger of Marcel Duchamp



Ai Weiwei’s interest in art started at a young age, and in 1978 he enrolled at the Beijing Film Academy. He found that he was more creatively free when working with avant-garde artists such as Xing Xing or Stars.


He moved to the United States in 1981 where he enrolled in Parsons School of Design - part of what is now The New School in New York City, and became an active member of the artistic community. Ai Weiwei initially focused on painting, but found his true voice in sculpture. He was inspired by the works of Marcel Duchamp and the German sculptor Joseph Beuys so much so that in his 1988 exhibit in New York City, one of his pieces was a wire hanger bent into Duchamp's profile. However at the time, he wasn't able to sell much of his work. 




Art as Political Expression


Ai Weiwei’s work is known for containing political messaging and activism. He's known best for speaking out against the Chinese government, though his work is also critical of global politics and the politics of other nations. All of his work touches on politics, social conditions, and shared humanity in one form or another. Now, how did this passion for politics begin? 


Ai Weiwei Han Dynasty Coco Cola Urn

In 1993, Ai Weiwei’s father fell ill, so he returned to Beijing. There he began to explore China's descent into modernization away from its cultural heritage, and created pieces that irreversibly transformed historical Chinese artifacts, destroying what they once were in order to represent the larger political issues. Some examples of this are the Han Dynasty Urn that he painted a Coca-Cola label across and another Han Dynasty Urn that he photographed as he dropped and shattered it. 


Ai Weiwei dropping Han Dynasty Urn


Examples of Ai Weiwei’s Work


Literature


Pages from Zodiac: A Graphic Memoir by Ai Weiwei
Pages from Zodiac: A Graphic Memoir by Ai Weiwei

From 1994 and 1997, Ai Weiwei collaborated with Chinese curator Feng Boyi on writing three books about Chinese avant-garde artwork titled Black Cover Book (1994), White Cover Book (1995), and Gray Cover Book (1997). Since these books encouraged the practice, they were published outside of government channels and became staples of the underground Chinese art community. His books take many forms including memoirs, photo books, and scholarly conversations about his exhibitions, art in general, social conditions, and what it means to be human. His most recent work published in 2024 is a graphic memoir featuring comics about his life and practice titled Zodiac: A Graphic Memoir


Architecture


Ai Weiwei, Three Shadows Photography Center in Cao Chang Di
Three Shadows Photography Center in Cao Chang Di

In 1999, Ai Weiwei built his own studio complex on the edge of Beijing and he created the architecture firm FAKE Cultural Development Ltd. In 2007, he designed the Three Shadows Photography Center in Cao Chang Di. Though architecture is not his main artform, he has been in charge of creating important Chinese buildings. He still was able to imbed politics, with one project even being used to critique the surveillance of the Chinese government. His workshop which was self-designed was in fact torn down by the Chinese government for claims that he did not have the proper permit. 


Fairytale, 2007


Fairytale by Ai Weiwei

The firm helped create his project Fairytale in 2007, where 1001 Chinese citizens traveled to explore Kassel, Germany during the Documenta art festival. This was a conceptual project meant to bring to reality the “fairytale” of Chinese citizens leaving their country, specifically ones who would not be able to travel otherwise. The name fairytale has a double meaning, as Kassel, Germany is the birthplace of fairytales written by Brothers Grimm. 


Remembering, 2009


Ai Weiwei, Remembering

Ai Weiwei’s installation piece Remembering from 2009 was a response to the 2008 earthquake. The piece was made up of 9,000 backpacks that formed a quote in Chinese from an earthquake victim's mother that stated, “She lived happily for seven years in this world.” This was a form of advocating for better infrastructure and evacuation systems in order to protect Chinese citizens. 


Sunflower Seeds, 2010


Sunflower Seeds Ai Weiwei

In 2010, Ai Weiwei created one of his most famous works, Sunflower Seeds. Initially viewers were encouraged to walk on top of the 100 million hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds (painted by a team of craftspeople), but due to health concerns the interactive portion was halted. The seeds were considered a metaphor for the Chinese population, and more specifically, emphasized the difference between self and society, one and many. Sunflowers are also the famous flower of the 1960s-1970s Cultural Revolution in China and was a symbol for the country’s communist leader at the time.


Circle of Animals/Zodiac Head, 2011


Circle of Animals Zodiac Head by Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei’s installation piece Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads was unveiled in New York City and London in May 2011. It was his first major public sculpture and were recreations of the famous 12 bronze animal heads that once decorated the Zodiac Fountain in Yuan Ming Yuan before being stolen in 1860 during the Second Opium War. 


Documentaries

His documentaries Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry in 2012, and Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case in 2013 were both about his achievements and misfortunes and brought even further international attention his way. Both documentaries follow him after being imprisoned and show how he stepped back into making art that challenged authority. 


Human Flow, 2017


Human Flow by Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei's more recent work has focused on not only the politics and activism surrounding China, but the rest of the world as well. In 2017, his film Human Flow was about the refugee crisis. Multiple installation pieces were also created throughout New York City, meant as a critique of America's strict immigration laws. 



Where is Ai Weiwei Today? 


Ai Weiwei

Today, Ai Weiwei is still an artist and activist, creating documentaries, books, artwork, and frequenting X (formerly Twitter) to add his own personal comments on current political issues with a focus on human rights, public health, and anti-war efforts worldwide. 



How to Use Art for Activism


Ai Weiwei’s activism is at the core of his artwork. Politics and social conditions are present in everything he does, which is what has made him grow in popularity. He doesn’t shy away from controversy, but instead speaks out against injustices no matter the consequence, even risking imprisonment to maintain his authenticity. 


As artists, we have the power to talk about the things that matter most to us. Art is a great tool to use free speech and to make your position heard. This might mean photographing the issues you care about, painting symbolic images, installing sculptures, or arranging performances that help bring awareness to causes that are important to you. If you can learn one thing from Ai Weiwei, it’s that you should always feel free to make art about the issues you care most about.



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