In 1958, during the revolution in China his father, Chinese poet Ai Qing, was sent to labour camps and ultimately exiled to Shihezi in 1961. After Mao’s death and the end of the Cultural Revolution, the family returned to Beijing in 1976. In 1981, Ai moved to New York City to pursue an art career. He was a photographer at the time and also began to study Marcel Duchamp. This lead to using readymades as his artistic medium of choice. In 1993, he returned to China, after his father became ill. Artistic expression was and still is very un-encouraged by the Government and Ai created a series of books called the Black, White and Gray Cover Books. These books, showcasing the new generation of artists, became an underground classic. Finally other artists in China could see each other’s works.
Unquestionably the most famous Chinese artist in the world, Ai Weiwei was born on August 28, 1957 in Beijing, China. An activist artist who’s been openly critical of the Chinese Government’s stance on democracy and human rights, Ai has been a voice for the oppressed and an example of the power of art and how it can bring about awareness to the social issues of our time. An artist, activist and architect, Ai Weiwei is bold, honest and unafraid to stand up for those who need a voice.
His work began to put a critical eye on abuse of power of both his government and those abroad. Ai began questioning what we value in our society, is it freedom to create the future as we see it, or to stay with traditional views. He began exploring the idea of destroying the past in order to rebuild a better future. This is a theme that returned multiple times in his body of work. In one of his works which consists of three photographs, Ai is photographed dropping a two thousand year old Han Dynasty Urn. He began painting these relics of the past with bright colors. This is a controversial idea, as we quickly criticize those that destroy works of the past.
"If my art has nothing to do with people's pain and sorrow, what is art for?"
Ai hires people that are gifted in the old traditional forms of Chinese craftsmanship. He creates new work with ancient materials and techniques. Almost to force the dialogue of the past history of a nation and the future.
After the 2008 Sichuan province earthquake, he began to investigate the deaths and the deliberate understating of casualties by the Chinese Government. He and a team of researchers accumulated 5,385 names of those who died, including many children. He documented the posted a blog tittled “Citizen’s Investigation” displaying the names of all of those that died. He created a piece with 9,000 colored backpack that wrote the words of one of the victim's mother, “she lived happily for seven years in this world.”
On April 2011, he was arrested at the Beijing Airport just before heading to Hong Kong. His studio was searched by 50 officers who took away laptops and hard drives while also detaining eight staff members. He was held for no reason for 81 days and his passport was taken away until July 2015.
Ai Weiwei continues to use art as a way to be a voice for those who are oppressed. In 2016, he began a series of works looking at the refugee crisis around the world. Works of art are now being displayed in public spaces in major cities around the world. He asks us to think about our role in the collective unit of the human race. The right’s he hold to be human rights and challenges those that do not allow for those rights to be exercised. He will continue, without fear, to toat the line between artist and activist stating “Liberty is about our right to question everything.”