Ai Weiwei 艾未未


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Ai Weiwei--an artist, curator, architectural designer, and social commentator--is a towering figure in contemporary Chinese culture. Born in 1957 in Beijing, he lives and works there today. In the late 1970s, Ai was an active member of the Stars Group, which organized the famous 1979 exhibition in a park across the street from the National Gallery of China. The atmosphere of that time led Ai to a lengthy sojourn in New York, which ended with his 1993 return to Beijing. There he founded the experimental East Village artists' community and organized exhibitions and art historical works.


Date & Place of Birth

Ai Weiwei was born in Beijing in 1957.

Childhood & Family

Ai Qing, Selected Poems. Bilingual version. Beijing: Foreign Language Press, 2001.
Ai Qing, Selected Poems. Bilingual version. Beijing: Foreign Language Press, 2001.
At the time of Ai Weiwei’s birth, his father, Ai Qing, was one of the country’s best-known poets. Ai Qing studied painting in Paris in the 1930s.  He returned to China, but was banished from Beijing during the Cultural Revolution and sent to labor camps in northern Heilongjiang Province and western Xinjiang Province.

After nine years in Xinjiang, Ai's family was sent to a military re-education camp near the Gobi Desert. And there, for the next five years, Ai Weiwei recalls his father did nothing but clean toilets. The great poet who had inspired generations of writers was also nearly beaten to death.

A break came Ai's way in the 1970s, when, as the story goes, a foreigner asked Premier Zhou Enlai about the poet Ai Qing's fate. Before long, Ai was allowed to return to Beijing and the home he had purchased in 1957. He was exonerated in 1978, and resumed writing until his death in 1996.

Education & Development

Ai Weiwei returned to Beijing along with his family in the 1970s, and began to produce art, encouraged by his father's friends who'd seen his drawings and sketches. He enrolled in film school along side Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, now acclaimed directors and members of the so-called Fifth Generation of Filmmakers.

But, before long, Ai cut his film studies short. Speaking to David Barboza and Lynn Zhang of about this volatile time, Ai said: “After two years of study I was so bored. We were all very excited to get in, but I was very unhappy...We had just come through a tough period.... Then suddenly, people were talking about the “Four Modernizations,” but no one was questioning how things were done in the past. So I was disappointed.”

During that time, Ai became a member of the Stars. The group, led by the painters Huang Rui and Ma Desheng, held an unauthorized exhibition in a park across from the National Gallery in 1979. The exhibition was shut down and soon after, the Stars were a national and international sensation. However, along with other group members, like Wang Keping and Li Shuang, Ai felt his prospects for both artistic and political expression were better abroad.

Ai left for Berkeley, California, in 1981. He passed his English language test there and moved to New York, where he enrolled at Parsons School of Design and the Art Students League. While at school Ai was drawn to the Dadaism of Duchamp as well as the wry Neo-Dadaism of Jasper Johns and the brash Pop Art of Andy Warhol. Ai dropped out of school again and spent much of his 12 years in New York visiting art galleries and bookstores, working part-time as a babysitter, construction worker, and printer, and wandering the streets.

The young Allen Ginsberg (1936-1997).
The young Allen Ginsberg (1936-1997).
He also experimented with the idea of nurturing a community of intellectuals. Ai was inspired by his friend, the poet Allen Ginsberg, a Buddhist-leaning icon of the Beat and countercultural movements. Ai's East Village apartment, near Tompkins Square Park, became a kind of rooming house for young Chinese artists and intellectuals including Tan Dun, Xu Bing  and Chen Kaige. And yet, Ai's artistic prospects seemed dubious. Ginsberg reportedly suggesed he doubted that any gallery would show Ai's art. At parties listeners reportedly turned away when Ai interjected that he was an artist. And, to add insult to injury, he became an illegal alien after dropping out of art school.
Ai Weiwei, Whitewash, 1995-2000.
Ai Weiwei, Whitewash, 1995-2000.
Ai returned home in 1993 because his father was ill. Ai admits to Barboza he was reluctant to return to Beijing, feeling like a failure: "When I came back, my mother was too shy to ask me. I didn’t have a degree, almost no money, no property, not married. I didn’t have a degree, not even a bachelor’s degree. But I came back because my father was ill. In 12 years I hadn’t come back once. And I hadn’t even written a letter.” His father lived another three years, dying at the age of 86.

In Beijing, Ai Weiwei returned to the art scene. He helped create a community of artists, named after New York’s East Village. He also began documenting the work of Chinese artists in a series of publications--the Black, White, and Gray covered books. Soon Ai's documentation of works began to include images of his own pieces.


Ai Weiwei, Breaking of Han Dynasty era urn, 1995.
Ai Weiwei, Breaking of Han Dynasty era urn, 1995.

Early Work

The works Ai produced during this early period include performative photographs and large, archaeologically-themed installations, like his arrangement of Neolithic vases in Whitewash. Ai's disillusionment with the Chinese establishment is a theme that spans the entirety of his work. A  well-known photograph of 1994 portrays Lu Qing, the artist's wife, acting as an exhibitionist as she lifts her skirt towards a wall in Tiananmen Square bearing a portrait of Mao Zedong.

Ai Weiwei, Untitled, 1994.
Ai Weiwei, Untitled, 1994.

He also created conceptualist-derived photographic series, such as Seven Frames, comprising seven photographs of a military guard, represented from stern-faced visage to neatly polished shoes, only to reveal in the final frame, as the curator Wu Hung points out, an untied shoelace. Like so many of Ai Weiwei’s works, this one satirizes authority, or--in the case of a Han Dynasty Urn with a Coca-Cola logo--historical tradition itself.                                                                                             

Late 1990s-Present

Ai Weiwei, Study of Perspective: White House, 1995-2003.
Ai Weiwei, Study of Perspective: White House, 1995-2003.
For Ai's extensive Study of Perspective series (1995-2003), Ai photographs landmarks such as the White House and Tiananmen Square with his middle finger raised defiantly in the foreground. His attitude toward authority is unmistakable. 

In a more recent project, Ai wryly turns antique furniture inside out. In Table with Two Legs on the Wall, he transforms a reproduction of a functional Qing-era table into art, an object created for entirely different purposes.

Ai Weiwei, Table With Two Legs on the Wall, 2008.
Ai Weiwei, Table With Two Legs on the Wall, 2008.
Barboza in ArtzineChina, aptly summarizes Ai’s consistent approach, noting that: "[Ai] questions authority, defaces traditional or classical objects, savages pieties and fuses old world artifacts with symbols of the modern, consumerist age.”


Ai served as the Head Artistic Advisor for Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron's design for the National Stadium for the Beijing Olympic games of 2008. Despite having no formal architectural instruction, Ai was recommended for the post by the savvy collector Uli Sigg, former Swiss ambassador to China and H & M's liaison for negotiating the logistical and cultural complexities of building in China.  

Today Ai Weiwei is working on several architectural projects, perhaps most notably a walled compound containing a residence and gallery for Urs Meile, his European art dealer, on an unusually large, 21,000 square foot lot near Ai's  studio in Beijing.

Ai Weiwei and Herzog et de Meuron, Bird's Nest Olympic Stadium, 2008.
Ai Weiwei and Herzog et de Meuron, Bird's Nest Olympic Stadium, 2008.


Curiously, in a 2009 interview with Rebecca MacKinnon of RConversation, Ai Weiwei expressed an intention to focus exclusively on public life from this point on, ideally leaving the museum world behind. He aims to restrict himself to social art. He explains: “Exhibiting art in museums isn't very interesting...Art is connected to our lives. Our lives are political so [art] becomes political.”

Emergence & Reception

Before 2000, Ai Weiwei was not very well known as an artist. He was instead producing books and promoting art, even working at galleries and selling antique furniture. In 2000, Ai Weiwei co-curated his first exhibition Fuck Off with critic and curator Feng Boyi in Shanghai. Though many critics called it a publicity stunt, intended to incite shock, it drew attention to several unjustly neglected artists, including himself.

Now, two of the biggest collectors of Chinese contemporary art– Guan Yi and Uli Sigg– consider Ai Weiwei among the country’s best artists. In fact, Uli Sigg, the former Swiss ambassador to China and one of the biggest collectors of Chinese contemporary art, calls Ai Weiwei a genius. Despite participating in numerous group exhibitions in the US and Europe, Ai Weiwei has never had a solo exhibition inside China. Ai Weiwei's first one-person gallery show anywhere came only in 2008, at the Mary Boone Gallery in New York. As he recalls in an interview for Hans Ulrich Obrist and Karen Smith's biography, Ai Weiwei: "In the 1980s, I used to go to Mary Boone [gallery in New York City] to see what was going on, and one day, years later, I was walking in Beijing and got a phonecall from Mary. She said she would like to have a show with me. I was so happy I immediately accepted." Karen Smith curated the show. According to Brian Broucher's review in Art In America, Ai Weiwei "commanded the gallery's grand space...with a literally sparkling demonstration of the Chinese artist's gifts for formal seduction and pointed commentary."[1]

Auctions & Acquisitions

For a list of collections containing works by Ai Weiwei, click here

Secondary Activities


Ai Weiwei and Feng Boyi stirred up the scene of the Shanghai Biennale in 2000, when they  co-curated a show entitled Fuck Off. It was packed with provocative works, including one installation that featured the bodies of two dead babies. The show's closing by officials almost immediately followed its opening. But within days the foreign media had seized on the show and interviewed its organizers numerous times. Since then, Ai has curated a string of unorthodox exhibition, including Mahjong which was drawn from the Sigg Collection and traveled extensively to western museums between 2005 and 2009.


Throughout the 1990s Contemporary art exhibitions were routinely closed. To circumvent this obstacle, artists showed their work in dark basements or in unannounced, hour-long exhibitions in the street. Publishing was another way for artists to get word out about their activities . Ai's most well-known publications are the Red Flag books, a series comprised of three volumes--the Black Cover Book, the White Cover Book, and the Gray Cover Book. In Karen Smith's biography of Ai Weiwei, he describes their significance: "I tried to make a document or archive for what was going on, and at the same time to promote a conceptual base for the art, rather than just art on canvas on easels. So I forced artists to write a concept, to explain what is behind their activity. At the very beginning, they were not used to it. I also wanted to introduce Duchamp, Jeff Koons, and Andy Warhol and some conceptual artists and essential [art historical] writings, to China. You could say these books were also curatorial projects."

The Black, White & Gray Cover Books

The first of the seminal series of books about Chinese avant-garde art, the 1994 Black Cover compilation includes an interview with Taiwanese artist Hsieh Tehching, plus sections entitled Studio and Artworks. The former includes recent work by and notes about Ma Liuming, Wang Gongxin, Zhu Fadong, Song Dong, Xu Bing, Zhang Huan, Geng Jianyi, Huang Yongping, Lin Yilin, Xu Tan, Liang Juhui, Ah Xian, Huang Yan, Liang Shaoji. It also contains news about Beijing's then-new East Village.

The 1995 White Cover compilation includes an interview with Ai Weiwei, plus Studio pages covering Ding Yi, Ma Liuming, Wang Jin, Yin Xiuzhen, Qiu Zhijie, Zhang Huan, Wang Jianwei, Chen Shaoxiong, Song Dong, Qian Weikang, Zhang Peili, and Zhuang Hui among others. Images of artworks by 32 others comprise the Artworks section.

The Gray Cover compilation published in 1997 was the series' third and final volume. It contained interviews with Zheng Guogu, Zhu Fadong, Hong Hao, Xu Yihui, Ai Weiwei and Yan Lei. The studio section includes work and notes by Wang Jingsong, Ma Yunfei, Yin Xiuzhen, Zhang Lei, Rong Rong, Hong Hao, Zhao Bandi, Lin Tianmiao, Shi Yong, Xu Ruotao, Zhan Wang, Lu Qing, Yan Lei, Zhu Min, Liu Xinhua, Liu Jianhua and others.


Ai Weiwei uses his blog as a distribution channel for his social commentary.  In Rebecca MacKinnon's January, 2009, interview with Ai, he spoke optimistically about the effect of the internet on China: “I don't know about in other countries, but in China the Internet's impact is beyond anybody's imagination.  The Internet can do more to accelerate China's reforms than any other thing.”

Awards & Honors

In 2008, Ai received the Chinese Contemporary Art Award for lifetime contribution to the visual arts, established a decade earlier by Ai's long time friend and supporter Uli Sigg. Ai now serves on the prestigious jury for the awards.


Ai's artwork has been exhibited extensively in Australia, Belgium, China, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Korea and the United States. His work was included in the 48th Venice Biennale (1999), Italy; the First Guangzhou Triennial (2002), China; Zones of Contact at the 2006 Biennale of Sydney; and Documenta XII (2007), where his monumental outdoor sculpture titled Template collapsed after a storm. 

For Ai Weiwei’s CV, click here:

References  [1]

Chiu, Melissa, Chinese Contemporary Art: 7 Things You Should Know, New York: AW Asia, 2008.

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