Ai Weiwei (Īˈ wāwā) [key], 1957–, Chinese artist, architect, filmmaker, and political activist. He is the son of poet Ai Ch'ing, who was internally exiled (1958–76) to work camps with his family. Ai subsequently studied at the Beijing Film Institute, began to make avant-garde art, and became politically active. From 1981 to 1993 he lived in New York City and studied at the Parsons Inst. of Design. In the mid-1990s he and two other artists published an influential trilogy of books on avant-garde Chinese artists. Ai began to attract international attention with such works as the photo tryptich Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995) and his reassembled Ming and Ch'ing artifacts, which embody his recurring themes of destruction and recreation. He opened an art atelier and architectural practice and helped design the Beijing Olympics "Bird's Nest" stadium (2008), but soon disassociated himself from the games. His best-known works include the backpacks and text installations (2009) commemorating the children who died in poorly built schools in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and the Tate Modern's installation (2010) of millions of porcelain sunflower seeds.
Ai began writing a blog in 2005, which by 2008 had become a venue for political satire and dissidence. His political activism led in 2009 to a severe police beating that required emergency cranial surgery, and the next year he was placed under house arrest. In 2011 his new Shanghai studio was razed by the government. That same year he was arrested, ostensibly for tax evasion, detained for several weeks in a secret prison, and then had his travel restricted; he was fined $2.4 million for tax evasion. In 2012 the government announced that it would revoke his business license, forcing the closure of his architectural firm. Ai created six half-scale fiberglass dioramas depicting his life while in detention; they were smuggled out of China and exhibited in Venice in 2013.
See L. Ambrozy, ed., Ai Weiwei's Blog: Writings, Interviews, and Digital Rants, 2006–2009 (2011) and L. Warsh, ed., Weiwei-isms (2012); study by K. Smith et al. (2009); B. Martin, Hanging Man: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei (2013); A. Klayman, dir. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (documentary, 2012).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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