Ai Weiwei (born 1957) is a Chinese artist, curator, architectural designer, social commentator, and activist.
He was the artistic consultant on the Beijing National Stadium, which was a joint venture among architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron of Herzog & de Meuron, project architect Stefan Marbach, CADG (chief architect Li Xinggang), and Ai Weiwei.
Ai’s artwork has been exhibited in China, Japan, Korea, Australia, United Kingdom, Belgium, The Netherlands, Luxembourg, France, Germany, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, Ireland, Israel, Brazil and the United States.
Table With Three Legs, 2006
* Table from the late Ming or early Qing dynasty (1368 – 1911)
Many of Ai Weiwei’s works from the past decade, for example, are made of local materials and of antique Chinese objects: tables and chairs from the Ming and Qing Dynasties, wood, doors and windows from demolished temples and traditional houses, freshwater pearls, tea, marble, stone, bamboo etc. – ‘ready-mades’ trans¬lated into a conceptual, post-minimalist idiom.
Alternatively, for his colored vase series, he takes Neolithic vases (5000 – 3000 B.C.) and paints them careless with bright industrial colors. Then he places them in an Allan McCollum style.
Painted Vases, 2009
The vases are authentic antique vases which could just as easily have stood in a collection in a historical museum in China. Yet it is not contempt for China’s history and tradition that lies behind this harsh treatment of the fine old antiques – on the contrary. His use of the vases should rather be seen as a Dadaistic gesture, as black humour and as a political comment on the organized destruction of cultural and historical values that took place, especially during the Cultural Revolution, when every¬thing old was to be replaced by the new. This stopped after the death of Mao, but the destruction and erosion of Chinese culture continues to this day – now under cover of economic progress.
Ai Weiwei points to the loss of culture by transforming the historical objects into something new – into moving and highly sensual contemporary artworks which thanks to their aesthetic beauty recirculate the meaning and history of these valuable cultural artefacts.
‘Remembering’, Installation of backpacks for the facade of the Haus der Kunst, Munich, 2009
Ai Weiwei did an installation ‘Remembering’ on Haus der Kunst’s façade that was made out of 9000 children’s backpacks. They spell out the sentence ‘She lived happily for seven years in this world’ in Chinese characters. This is a quote from a mother who’s child died in the Sichuan earthquake in 2008. Ai Weiwei said: “The idea to use backpacks came from my visit to Sichuan after the earthquake in May 2008. During the earthquake many schools collapsed. Thousands of young students lost their lives, and you could see bags and study material everywhere. Then you realize individual life, media, and the lives of the students are serving very different purposes. The lives of the students disappeared within the state propaganda, and very soon everybody will forget everything.”
Ai Weiwei has carefully chosen the Haus der Kunst for his retrospective also because of the museum’s history: It was built in 1937 by the fascist Nazi regime. It was opened with the anti-modernist propaganda show ‘Entartete Kunst’ (degenerate art).
Dust to Dust, 2008
In his ‘Dust to dust’ series he first crushed Neolithic-age pottery to powder and stored the gritty remains in a clear IKEA glass jar. Here, the funereal act of memorializing an old urn in a modern urn coupled with the implied violence of the grinding gives the work cerebral and visceral force.
Table With Two Legs On Wall, 1997
Two Joined Square Tables, 2005
Ton Of Tea, 2006
Map of China, 2004
* Tieli wood from dismantled temples of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911)
Coca Cola Vase, 1997
* Vase from the Tang dynasty (618-907)
A 2010 exhibition review by Bean Gilsdorf, published on Daily Serving, notes that, “Urns of this vintage are usually cherished for their anthropological importance. By employing them as readymades, Ai strips them of their aura of preciousness only to reapply it according to a different system of valuation. However, this is not the well-worn strategy of the readymade famously applied by Duchamp to his urinal Fountain, wherein the object lacked cultural gravitas until placed in an art context. Instead, Ai’s chosen readymades already have significance. Working in this manner, Ai transforms precious artifacts—treating them as base and valueless by painting, dropping, grinding, or slapping with a logo—into contemporary fine art. The substitution of one kind of value for another occurs when he displays the transformed urns in a museum vitrine, reinstilling value but replacing historical significance with a newer cultural one.”
Monumental Junkyard, 2007
And here’s an excerpt of an interview with Ai Weiwei by John Sunyer.
Did you always want to be an artist?
No. I decided to become an artist in the late 1970s to try to escape the totalitarian conditions in China. Everybody wants to be part of the big power, so there are lies and false accusations everywhere. For me, art is an escape from this system.
If you were not an artist what would you be?
Snake Ceiling, 2009 * using backpacks
Oil Spills, 2006
Is there a distinction between your art and your activism?
Art and politics are fragments of the same thing – they’re about an understanding of our surroundings. Sometimes my work is political, sometimes it is architectural, sometimes it is artistic. I don’t think I am a dissident artist; I see them as a dissident government.
Your twitter account (@aiww) has 48,000 followers and you usually tweet over 100 times a day. Why?
For the first time in over 1,000 years, Chinese people can exercise their personal freedom of expression. This is down to Twitter, which has become part of my life in the same way that art has. They are inseparable. I also like Twitter because it creates possibilities for us to reach out to feel hope, otherwise we are all just individuals and cannot share the same kind of dream or same kind of gaze in another person’s eye. It’s a little bit of light in a dark room.
Has your interest in politics overtaken your interest in art?
My art works best when there is an underlying political theme. I want all of my political efforts to become art. I also feel a responsibility to speak out for people around me who are afraid and who have totally given up hope. I want to say: you can do it and it is OK to speak out. But it isn’t necessarily deliberate, it’s just how I am.
Untitled by Herzog & de Meuron and Ai Weiwei, 2008
Fountain of Light, 2007
You claim that police entered your hotel room and attacked you because of your involvement in reporting the names of students who were victims of the Sichuan earthquake in 2008. Has this forced you to change the way you work?
No, I haven’t changed anything about the way I work. And I don’t plan to. The attack almost ended my life, but this work will always be worth the effort if I can make a strong voice and readjust living conditions for the people around me. I will always feel sad when students are killed and nobody takes responsibility.
People describe you as the leading Chinese artist fighting for freedom of expression.
It is difficult, though. The ideology in China doesn’t encourage freedom of speech. There isn’t even freedom of information – everyone knows that the Internet and newspapers are heavily censored in China. I think that all artists should stand for certain values, particularly freedom of expression. It is the most important issue we face in China, yet hardly any Chinese artists concentrate on this. Maybe artists in the west don’t have to fight for this, but democratic societies have other problems.
How do you view China’s development since your childhood?
New technology has forced China to put itself in a more open position. But this has not been done willingly by the government. Politically they want the structure to be the same as it was when I was growing up. Although everyday life has become better for most people, there is still a lot of work to be done. People are too cautious of the potential crisis. We all need to take more responsibility for the political situation.
Are you optimistic about China’s future?
In the long run it is not possible to stop Chinese people speaking for freedom and democracy. Living in China can be very frustrating, but also very exciting. You see the possibilities and play the game.
Is there a plan?
Are we all doomed?
I am not optimistic about the future. Our whole lives have been designed by fate. And although some humans are brilliant, everything looks like it has already been settled.
Interview by John Sunyer