China's oppressive attitude toward free speech and dialogue has resulted in conflict between the country and its people's most beloved contemporary artist. Referred to as a figure of "Warholian celebrity" by the New York Times
, Ai Weiwei risks everything to improve the intellectual landscape in his homeland. By refusing to keep quiet, Ai has been a victim of police brutality, unexplained arrest and unlawful search and seizure. But he won't stop until the Chinese autocratic government has been abolished.
Ai Weiwei was born in 1957 to Ai Qing, China's most famous modern poet, and Gao Ying. At the age of one his father was exiled to a labor camp for "being the wrong kind of intellectual
." Although his poetry was not political, he was seen as an enemy to the people and forbidden to write a single word for 20 years. Ai lived through this with him and upon his release all they received was a flippant apology from the state. Nothing more. Thus it is obvious where his inclination toward political activism comes from. He's been exposed to China's blatant oppression since birth and he's determined to improve the situation. His art explores themes of social and political criticism, and many have expressed concern that he is offering himself up on a platter to the Chinese government by producing such provocative works. One such piece is a naked photograph of Ai Weiwei with the caption "grass mud horse covering the middle" a phrase with a double meaning in Chinese -- the other being "Fuck your mother, the central party committee." This photograph was released shortly before he was arrested and detained for almost 3 months while under no formal charges. Ai Weiwei's international celebrity status had many believing that he was untouchable, and it is commonly agreed upon that his arrest was the state's way of saying "no one is immune." With the threat of unjust punishment, one might think that he would cower in fear and shut his mouth. But that is not the way of Ai Weiwei. He explains
, 'I will not be held back. Not saying things is not good for anybody. I believe every citizen should state their mind. China has never been a democratic society, so candour and responsibility have never been encouraged. People feel hopeless, even about trying to take part in the political process, and they have done for generations.'
[caption id="attachment_6197" align="alignright" width="460" caption="Forever Bicycles, part of his Absent exhibition at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum"]
In 1978 Ai attended the Beijing Film Academy where he founded an early avant garde group of other students. His work is frequently very community oriented, and includes collaborations with not only other artists but regular people as well. Upon graduation he took off to New York where he attended Parsons in NYC and the Art Students League of New York. He is incredibly well rounded, never focusing on just one medium, and excels in sculpture, installation, architecture, curating, photography and film as well as social, political and cultural criticism.
After a decade away he returned to China to be with his ill father and has been there ever since. Back to work in Beijing he founded the Beijing East Village, a collection of artists and photographers, with the goal of resurrecting contemporary Chinese art. He wrote three books about the movement, which are now considered seminal texts. He continued to improve his community and co-founded the China Art Archives & Warehouse which focuses on experimental Chinese art, finding the up and comers from all around China and introducing them to the rest of the art world. His focus shifted in 2003 when he founded the architecture studio FAKE Design. He may actually be most well known for his architectural work as he was tapped to be the artistic consultant for the Beijing National Stadium in the 2008 Summer Olympics. He collaborated with the Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron to create what is now known as the "Birds Nest," a structure featuring overlapping steal beams in an almost basketweave design which was Ai's concept. The stadium is internationally lauded for its design, but Ai distances himself from the project. He expressed a firmly anti-Olympic stance before ever working on the stadium and avoids any association with the project. To Ai, the Olympics being held in Beijing represents a false peace and harmony.
The Olympics are a political event, and China is not a democracy. With it being held in China, the country was opened up to the rest of the world -- something it had been struggling to do for decades. This made ideas of reform, equality and freedom seem more tangible than ever, but there needed to be more. Ai explains his stance:
The "Bird's Nest" National Stadium, which I helped to conceive, is designed to embody the Olympic spirit of "fair competition". It tells people that freedom is possible but needs fairness, courage and strength. Following the same principles, I will stay away from the opening ceremony, because I believe the freedom of choice is the basis of fair competition. It is the right I cherish most.
[caption id="attachment_6202" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Coloured Vases: a commentary on the Chinese cultural revolution"]
An open media is his goal, and it is a lofty one that will not come easily. Ai Weiwei has succeeded in entrenching himself in the global art community, participating in exhibitions and collaborations the world round he has become a very well known man. This year Art Review magazine ranked him #1 in their Power 100 list, a guide to the 100 most powerful figures in contemporary art. His 2007 Fairytale exhibit in Germany brought 1001 Chinese citizens to Kassel to live in an old renovated textile factory. He split participants into five groups, each staying in the city for 8 days at a time. The design objective was to tell of the people's experiences and explore their spirits in a truly participatory display. His 2008 Ordos 100 exhibit in Mongolia brought together 100 architects from 27 countries to participate in a massive housing design project. Each architect was given 1000 square meters of land to display their creativity -- they constructed mock ups and the homes could potentially be built if approved. His 2010 So Sorry exhibit in Munich focused on the quick, meaningless apologies offered up by international governments, industries and large corporations after making mistakes that alter the lives of many -- something he experienced first hand after his father was released from the labor camp. His 2011 Sunflower Seeds exhibit in London was a commentary on mass consumption, Chinese industry (the idea of "Made in China"), famine and collective work. It involved 100 million porcelain seeds that were sculpted and painted by hand instead of mass produced by 1600 Chinese artisans. Viewers were encouraged to walk through and roll around in the exhibit and consider the relationship between the individual and the masses. The exhibit created a social space rarely seen within museums; it was a multi-sensory experience that reinforced a sense of community that is not often felt while viewing art in the quiet, thoughtful environment museums typically provide.
[caption id="attachment_6218" align="aligncenter" width="500" caption="Some of the 1001 Chinese people brought to Kassel for Fairytale"]
[caption id="attachment_6212" align="aligncenter" width="460" caption="Sunflower Seeds"]
[caption id="attachment_6213" align="aligncenter" width="3264" caption="Sunflower Seeds"]
[caption id="attachment_6214" align="aligncenter" width="582" caption="Ordos 100: design by Juan Pablo Maza"]
[caption id="attachment_6215" align="aligncenter" width="956" caption="Remembering: part of So Sorry, tree trunks from all over China"]
He is a huge part of the international community with his work receiving positive attention and awards. But in China he is ignored. With the media so controlled by the state, bringing attention to Ai Weiwei and his radical ideas is just not done. He was an avid blogger and at one time was being read by more than 10,000 people per day. China quickly put the kibosh on that and banned his site within the country. Things like this have brought him to the point of likening the government to the mafia. And it is not like he is unaware of the potential consequences of his opinions. He saw his father sent away to labor camp for spreading ideas that were not even political, so imagine what could happen to Ai. Not to say that things haven't happened already -- they certainly have. In 2008 he supported the investigation of thousands of casualties following a massive earthquake. Shoddy construction resulted in the deaths of over 5,000 school children as classrooms collapsed. And to the horror of those effected, the government barely acknowledged this incident. Ai and others began compiling the names of the children who were killed and in August of 2009 he was beaten severely by the police for attempting to testify in support of a fellow investigator. After complaining of headaches and lack of focus for over a month he was diagnosed with internal bleeding and received emergency brain surgery.
[caption id="attachment_6211" align="aligncenter" width="1549" caption="Ai's Names Project: names of the dead children displayed on his studio wall"]
The following year Ai had planned to contribute to a community cultural center in Shanghai. He built a studio where he intended to teach architecture classes and the government openly supported this endeavor. That is until they found two documentaries of his that they considered subversive. He was then placed on house arrest and his studio was demolished, with the government claiming he did not follow proper procedure before construction. And it didn't end there. April 3, 2011 he was arrested in the Hong Kong airport and held for almost three months without a single formal charge. His assistant, driver and accountant were all reported missing. His home was ransacked and his wife interrogated. International governments, art institutions and human rights groups rallied around him, crying out for his release. But he had been marked as a "deviant and plagiarist" by the Chinese government and was being punished for his outspoken behavior. A few months later he was investigated again, this time on charges of spreading pornography after releasing a series of nude photographs including himself and various women. His lawyers publicly remark that all of the investigations he has been subject to are politically motivated; they are desperately trying to shut Ai Weiwei up. Yet he continues to use his international status to speak out against corruption, police brutality and reckless human rights violations committed by the Chinese state. He will not be silenced.
[caption id="attachment_6198" align="aligncenter" width="550" caption="Studio the Chinese government demolished"]
[caption id="attachment_6200" align="aligncenter" width="460" caption="A series of nude photographs that upset the state"]
The thought of this kind of undeserved, entirely arbitrary imprisonment is horrifying. It is clear why he is fighting so hard against the Chinese institution. Beyond being an incredible artist, this man is a hero -- not only to the Chinese people but to all of humanity. To have the strength, courage and conviction to fight against something so powerful, something that could make you disappear in an instant, is super human. So be grateful if you live in a country where you can blog about politics, tweet about your opinion and openly discuss the faults of your government. Always remember how lucky you are and watch below as Ai Weiwei addresses the dire situation in China and resolves that the only way to truly improve it is to show young people that they have a right to openly share their opinion.