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A guardian of humanity: Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei (b. 1957) is an artist and activist who is a fierce advocate for free speech and individual human rights.

Ai speaks his truth quietly, sometimes clearly, sometimes sphinxlike. He is critical of both communism and capitalism. He speaks out against oppressive regimes in all their forms. And throughout his life, Ai has consistently stood for humanity.

“We have to go back to humanism. Respect for individuals’ lives, property and development… individuals rights to be themselves and speak out about what they’re thinking.”

Ai was born in Beijing, the son of Ai Qing a poet and intellectual. Ai’s father was a friend of Mao Zedong, but he fell out of grace in a purge of “rightist” intellectuals and was exiled. Ai’s family was sent to a labor camp in China’s far north-west, known as ‘Little Siberia. There, he lived for five years in a dugout while his father cleaned pit latrines. Ai keeps memories of those years fresh, with a photo of the dugout home as his phone’s screensaver. “…to be poor, and to have an empty life as a child. I think you establish an understanding of how vulnerable our humanity can be.”

After five years in exile, Ai’s father was welcomed back to Beijing. There, Ai spent the rest of his childhood and adolescent years before studying at the Beijing Film Academy. In 1981, when Ai was 24, Chinese citizens were allowed to travel abroad. He took the opportunity to move to New York, where he would live for the next 12 years. Ai was struck by the active energy of the city and its freedom of expression. He worked odd jobs and spent much of his time visiting art exhibitions. He also enrolled at the Parsons School of Design but failed his final exam, writing his name and nothing else.

One day, on a visit to the Strand bookstore, Ai picked up The Philosophy of Andy Warhol by Andy Warhol. This book had a profound impact on him. “Warhol understood irony so well, but also tells the truth. Very harsh truth in his writing. He was 50 years ahead of his time. He understood free expression, media and communication, he was taking selfies all the time, recording people all the time…We are both sincere and insincere at the same time. And we love life, but without goals, without purpose.”

When his father fell ill in 1993, Ai returned to China. He was struck by two new forces at play: conformity and cronyism. “I could see so many luxury cars, but there was no justice or fairness in this society. Far from it.” His art responded to this new culture with satire, challenging the puritanical and conformist character of the new China. In his photographic series Study of Perspective, between 1995 and 2017 Ai photographed an extended left arm extended toward significant institutions, landmarks and monuments around the world. The images mimic tourist photos and encourage critical thinking toward governments, institutions and establishments. The first image of the series was done in Tiananmen Square, the site of the 1989 government killing of peaceful protestors. Other sites include the White House, the Mona Lisa, and the Colosseum among others.

Ai’s practice combines minimal, conceptual, and Dada traditions. Another of his key influences is Marcel Duchamp, famous for his 1917 work Fountain. Ai is also a documentary filmmaker and architectural designer. His most famous architectural project was the design of the Bird’s Nest stadium for the 2008 Olympics. In the lead-up to the Olympic games, he distanced himself from the work as he felt the Chinese government had turned the Olympic games into a giant propaganda spectacle.

Also in 2008, a major earthquake hit the Sichuan province resulting in the deaths of nearly 70,000 people, over 5,000 of which were schoolchildren attending school in poorly constructed facilities. The Chinese government didn’t make effort to account for the dead. Ai openly criticized the government and made it his mission to account for each name. His efforts angered Chinese authorities, and he was punched in the head by police officers, resulting in brain swelling that required an emergency operation.

Despite threats to his life, Ai continued to make provocative work. His seminal 2010 exhibition Sunflower Seeds at the Tate Modern featured 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds, hand painted by over 1,600 Chinese craftsmen over the course of two and a half years.

In 2011, the Chinese government again targeted Ai. This time, they accused him of tax evasion. He was arrested and detained under harsh conditions for three months. And for the next four years he was under semi-house arrest, with heavy surveillance confined to China because his passport was confiscated. In July 2015, after his passport was returned, Ai left China for Europe. “I’m still a Chinese citizen, a passport holder. But I don’t feel that it is my homeland. I speak Chinese and I’m a typical Chinese – but I never had a home there.”

From his new base in Berlin, Ai turned his focus to the Syrian refugee crisis (one of the largest refugee crises in history), where over 5 million fled their homeland, nearly 1 million settling in Germany. His 2017 installation at the Konzerthaus Berlin featured 14,000 life jackets adorning the six exterior columns. These jackets were actually worn by refugees fleeing to the Greek island of Lesbos. Ai wanted to bring attention to the humanitarian crisis in a visceral way.

In 2019, Ai left Germany for Cambridge so that his son could learn English. He currently has a solo exhibition at Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, on view through June 19, 2022. The exhibition features a number of “ready-mades”, objects taken from the world that the artist has modified, often infusing a satirical element. For example, Ai created a sculpture of a styrofoam tray in marble. “The Styrofoam takeout box is the most ubiquitous takeaway container in China, the most populous nation in the world The work is a marker of this time of globalization and the steep price China has paid, with regard to the health of its citizens through the exploitation of cheap labor, lack of protections for workers, and environmental destruction. Whereas China is the nation that has produced the highest quality porcelain in the past, indestructible Styrofoam is widely used at the present time. Our time is characterized by single-use disposability and convenience. This will be written about in the history of globalization, and the full effect will be passed on to the future.”

Ai is prolific with exhibitions, public art, films and a recently published autobiography. But he describes himself as having “no plan, no goal, no purpose of my life.” When asked about the job of an artist, he says “The job of an artist is to have no job. It’s to stay alert and speak out with truth.”

Soft-spoken but very vocal, Ai frequently shares his views with his large social media followings. He has over a million combined followers between Instagram and Twitter. On Instagram, he only follows two people: his 12-year-old son and his son’s mother, a filmmaker.

Ai Weiwei on protecting humanity:


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