Ai Weiwei, the Maverick of Contemporary Chinese Art

Ai Weiwei is one of the most well known contemporary artists, and probably the most famous Chinese artist of all times. He was born in 1957 in Beijing. His father was the poet Ai Qing, who was persecuted by the Chinese government and exiled to a faraway province in the west.

He moved to study in the US in the early 1980s as one of the first Chinese who were allowed to go study abroad. During the 1990s, Ai returned to China due to his father’s illness. However, his criticism about Chinese politics led to problems with the authorities. In 2010, Ai was placed under house arrest, and in 2011 he was arrested. He was detained for three months and finally released, perhaps due to the pressure from art institutions and artists from all over the world. For example, London’s Tate Modern, which at the time was exhibiting Ai’s sunflower seeds, set up a large sign on its roof which read “Release Ai Weiwei”. Since Ai’s release, he lived in Berlin until 2019, when he and his family decided to move to Cambridge.

Ai Weiwei’s Artistic Style

Ai works in a variety of artistic media, including videos, photography, performance, sculptures, sculptural installations, woodwork, music, music videos, and books. His work typically has a political angle, and they are often social commentaries on recent events or situations. He uses a lot of unconventional materials. For example, his sculpture “Forever Bicycles” (2017) in Austin, Texas, is made of 1300 bicycles, and “Straight” (2008-12) was made out of 150 tons of twisted steel reinforcements from buildings collapsed after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. He has also worked in architecture, curating architectural projects and collaborating with architects, including Herzog & de Meuron and Wang Shu.

Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn

Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995) is probably one of the most memorable and controversial artworks in recent history. It consists of a performance where Ai drops a 2000-year-old ceremonial urn from the Han dynasty era to the ground, thus smashing it into pieces. In addition to the performance, there are three photographs of the dropping. Ai has coined the term ‘cultural readymades’, based on Marcel Duchamp’s concept of ‘readymades’. In the work, the urn is a cultural readymade which is considered extremely valuable. The work is a commentary on China’s contradictions regarding its culture, which both reveres the old, especially the Han dynasty era, but Communist China has also been notorious in destroying past artworks.