Ai Weiwei was born in Beijing in 1957. He enrolled in Beijing Film Academy in 1978 and travelled to New York to continue his studies at the Parsons School of Design in 1982. A prolific artist and political activist, he is a vocal critic of human rights in China and has become one of the most influential cultural figures of the early twenty-first century.
Compelled by a sense of social conscience, his artistic practice extends across many disciplines. Filmmaker and photographer, sculpture and architect, a natural heir to Duchamp and Warhol, he digs deep into Chinese heritage, moving freely between a variety of formal languages. In his recycling of historical materials, Weiwei distils ancient and modern aesthetics into works of iconoclastic salvage. Always executed with humour and compassion, his work has made him one of the leading cultural figures of his generation. Weiwei extends his practice across multiple disciplines communicating with a global audience through social media and engaging fellow artists on an enormous scale.
In 2007, as part of international art exhibition Documenta 12, Weiwei flew 1001 Chinese citizens to the German town of Kassel. The volunteers – carefully selected by the artist from people who were not normally able to travel overseas – came for a week at a time with airfares and lodging paid. Identifiable through their ‘tourist uniforms’, the participants lived in an abandoned factory and were free to roam around Kassel, though unable to leave the city. This piece, called Fairytale – Kassel was home to the Brothers Grimm – offered multiple layers of meaning. The exotic Chinese visitors were at both art objects and observers, while the local Germans, aware of the Chinese gaze, could be re-imagined as exotic objects being observed by the visitors. In 2010, Ai Weiwei’s work Sunflower Seeds saw hundreds of millions of handmade porcelain seeds poured into the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern: a similarly audacious gesture which likewise commanded global attention.
In April 2011 Weiwei was arrested in China and held for three months without charge. Upon his release, his passport was confiscated, he was prohibited from traveling abroad or making public speeches and he was subjected to ongoing government surveillance. He currently remains in Beijing, where he lives and works under restricted conditions.
Ai Weiwei’s position as a provocateur and dissident informs the tenor and reception of much of his work. He infuses his sculptures, photographs and public artworks with both political conviction and personal poetry. In his sculptural works he often uses reclaimed materials – ancient pottery and wood from destroyed temples – in a conceptual gesture that connects tradition with contemporary social dynamics. Using juxtaposition, repetition and irony, he reinvigorates the potency and symbolism of traditional images.
Ai Weiwei has been the subject of numerous major solo exhibitions at, among others, The Royal Academy, The Victoria & Albert Museum, The Taipei Fine Arts Museum, Tate Modern, Haus der Kunst in Munich, the São Paulo Bienal and the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo. His architectural collaborations have included the Serpentine Pavilion in 2012 and the Beijing Olympic Stadium. He has won numerous awards and honours including the Lifetime Achievement Award in Chinese Contemporary Art Award in 2008 and the Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent from the Human Rights Foundation in 2012. He received an honorary doctorate from the Faculty of Politics and Social Science at the University of Ghent in 2010 and was made Honorary Academician at the Royal Academy of Arts in 2011.