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Ai Weiwei

Chinese Conceptual Artist

Movement: Conceptual Art

Born: August 28, 1957 - Beijing, China

Ai Weiwei Timeline

"Creativity is the power to reject the past, to change the status quo, and to seek new potential. Simply put, aside from using one's imagination - perhaps more importantly - creativity is the power to act."

Ai Weiwei Signature

Summary

Ai Weiwei is the most famous Chinese artist living today. As an activist, he calls attention to human rights violations on an epic scale; as an artist, he expands the definition of art to include new forms of social engagement. In a country where free speech is not recognized as a right, the police have beaten him up, kept him under house arrest, bulldozed his newly-built studio and subjected him to surveillance. He is viewed as a threat to "harmonious society." The West did not invent revolutionaries. China has an illustrious history of dissidents, anti-authoritarian originals and eccentrics, from the drunken monks of pre-history to counter-culture artists living in today's Beijing. Ai himself is from this long line of free-thinkers and writers, marginalized both by the right and left. From smashing an ancient vase to reciting the names of children who died due to government negligence, Ai's dramatic actions highlight the widening gap between the ideal and the real in Chinese society. He is also one of the earliest conceptual artists to use social media - Instagram and Twitter, in particular - as one of his primary media.

Key Ideas

Ai came of age as an art student in 1990s New York. A time and place where the more outrageously anti-authoritarian and oppositional the statement, the better. He then returned to China, an environment far less open to such views. In Ai's words, "China and the U.S. are two societies with very different attitudes towards opinion and criticism." He saw the difference, and refused to conform. He is an artist who actually put his life on the line to defend freedom of expression.
Ai was a professional blackjack player for a brief period early in life. His work is about risk (personal, professional, and political). It is also about testing the limits of freedom. His work is designed to remind us that risk-taking is an essential form of exercise in a free society.
Government spying, a hot topic in contemporary art lately, is not some futuristic idea but a fact of life for Ai. Under government surveillance for almost a decade, he has produced some of the most thoughtful work on this contemporary topic that is just as important in current popular culture as the hippies were in the 1960s or the feminists in the 1970s.
Trained in the West, Ai is intimately familiar with Conceptual and Minimalist traditions, and combines them. In his refusal to pleasure the eye, he is the opposite of Jeff Koons, his equally famous contemporary. In their visual austerity, Ai's pieces are closely aligned with the work of other global activists, among them David Hammons, Robert Gober, and Doris Salcedo, whose large-scale projects call attention to weighty social issues, breaking free from the confines of the gallery and the museum, and bridging the gap between the visual and the social.
Detail of <i>Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads</i> by Ai Weiwei installed in New York City at the Pulitzer Fountain at Grand Army Plaza, May 2011
Detail of Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads by Ai Weiwei installed in New York City at the Pulitzer Fountain at Grand Army Plaza, May 2011

Ai said his father, the poet Ai Qing, was his single greatest influence. When the artist was a year old, the family was sent to a labor camp, then to a rural village where Ai Qing was forced to clean communal toilets. Ai said his father "as a poet, as an artist, [he] worked so hard at first, and it was very impressive...and I think that the only rewarding feeling he could get was to make the toilets so completely clean. That act influenced me a lot...So, you know, I was born radical, I did not become radical."

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Artists, Friends, Movements
Influenced by Artist
Artists, Friends, Movements
Ai Weiwei
Interactive chart with Ai Weiwei's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
View Influences Chart

Artists

Marcel DuchampMarcel Duchamp
Andy WarholAndy Warhol
Jeff KoonsJeff Koons
Richard SerraRichard Serra
Jasper JohnsJasper Johns

Personal Contacts

Allen GinsbergAllen Ginsberg
Xu BingXu Bing

Movements

SurrealismSurrealism
MinimalismMinimalism
Pop ArtPop Art

Influences on Artist
Ai Weiwei
Ai Weiwei
Years Worked: 1980s - present
Influenced by Artist

Artists

Huang RuiHuang Rui

Personal Contacts

Anish KapoorAnish Kapoor
Xu BingXu Bing

Movements

Conceptual ArtConceptual Art
Installation ArtInstallation Art
Political Art

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Cite this page

Content compiled and written by Ruth Epstein

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Ruth Epstein
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 28 Mar 2016. Updated and modified regularly.
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