Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei ī´ 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. In 2009 a severe police beating required emergency surgery; the next year he was placed under house arrest. In 2011 the government razed his Shanghai studio and he was arrested, ostensibly for tax evasion, detained secretly and interrogated for 81 days, then had his travel restricted. His design firm was also fined $2.4 million for tax evasion. In 2012 the government revoked his business license, forcing his architectural firm to close. In 2015 he was permitted to travel abroad, and since then he has resided abroad. His Beijing studio was demolished in 2018 and the artworks within carted away.

Ai created six half-scale fiberglass dioramas depicting his detention; smuggled out of China, they were exhibited in Venice in 2013. A multimedia exhibition made for Alcatraz (2014–15) focused on human rights and prisoners of conscience, and featured portraits of prisoners made with toy plastic bricks. In 2017 Ai and architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron created Hansel & Gretel at New York City's Park Ave. Armory; the interactive dystopian playground used drones, infrared cameras, and other devices to track attendees and explore contemporary surveillance culture.

In 2016–17 Ai created several works and performances in Greece, Germany, and Denmark to protest Europe's treatment of Syrian refugees. In New York City, Ai Weiwei: Good Fences Make Good Neighbors (2017) focused on past and present refugees and immigrants, with more than 300 works citywide and three large sculptures: Gilded Cage, a 24-ft-tall (7-m) gold cagelike structure in Central Park; Arch, a taller steel cage with a mirrored passage in Washington Square; and Circle Fence, tubular stainless-steel netting surrounding the Unisphere in Flushing Meadows Corona Park. His documentary Human Flow (2017) explores the plight of Syrian and other refugees worldwide. In 2019, using Lego blocks, Ai created portraits of a group of 43 Mexican students who were kidnapped and killed in 2014 for Mexico City's University Museum of Contemporary Art.

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).

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