Beijing China, lives and works in Beijing and Berlin
No Chinese artist is as well known as Ai Weiwei (Beijing, 1957). That fame stems not only from his art, but also from his struggle for greater political and social freedom.
Visual artist, architect and designer, curator, fervent user of social media and outspoken activist: Ai Weiwei has a very broad outlook on what it means to be an artist. The social component of his work brings to mind Joseph Beuys's erweiterter Kunstbegriff, or 'extended definition of art'. He himself refers to Andy Warhol and Marcel Duchamp as important role models. ‘Until I discovered Duchamp, I had no idea art could be a lifestyle,' he says in a 2008 interview with Karen Smith. 'That saved my life. It brought an instant end to the struggle. I understood [...] that art could be a gesture, and that a gesture could take any form the artist chose, which might be to paint or doing something completely different.’
While living in New York from 1981 to 1993, Ai Weiwei gained an in-depth knowledge of contemporary Western art. These were crucial years, but his life as an artist only truly began to unfold when he returned to China in 1993, due to his father's illness. Ai Weiwei's father was the famous poet Ai Qing, who had been exiled with his entire family in 1958 and was not reinstated until 1979. Weiwei's return coincided with the 'birth' of modern art in his country. As an artist, a curator and compiler of several books on contemporary Chinese artists, he played a major role in this, being highly aware of the opportunities and dilemmas facing artists in an age of globalization.
Ai Weiwei frequently employs the principle of the readymade, appropriating existing objects. Not only in this respect, but also in comments on his own cultural tradition does he follow in the footsteps of Duchamp. His approach to this is rigorous and harsh. Whereas Marcel Duchamp used a reproduction of the Mona Lisa, Ai Weiwei makes use of actual works of art. In his famous photographic series Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995), he allows an ancient object to fall and break into pieces; in Painted Vases (2006) he dunks age-old pots in brightly colored enamel. In simple yet irreversible acts he tackles the issue of how his own cultural traditions have been dealt with today and in the recent past. In other works he questions the authenticity of those very traditions. In order to make way for the new, he believes, one must be able to destroy things, to get rid of the old.
The paradoxes that Ai Weiwei brings to light in his art become most distinct, perhaps, in his Sunflower Seeds. This is the work which, on having its debut in Tate Modern's Turbine Hall in 2010, made him known to a wider audience. To the Chinese people, sunflower seeds have various connotations. Not only do they serve as food; during the Cultural Revolution, they acquired symbolic meaning as well. Once Chairman Mao had appropriated the sun as his personal symbol, the Chinese people were compared to sunflowers, which looked up in admiration at The Great Helmsman. The millions of seeds in Weiwei's work are made of porcelain however. That fact gives rise to another image: that of 1600 workers in Jingdezhen (China's porcelain capital) who spent an entire year producing the 100 million tiny forms by hand and turning them into sunflower seeds with a few grey brushstrokes.
In his video works and on his blog site, where he has placed countless writings and photographs between 2006 and 2009, Ai Weiwei has broached a wide variety of cultural, political and social matters and spoken out against wrongs. By doing so he tested the limits of what authorities would tolerate in terms of criticism.