Ai Weiwei’s definition of art never changes. For the artist in him, art is all about freedom of expression, a new way of communication. For the activist in him, art is never about exhibiting in museums or about hanging it on the wall. ‘Art should live in the heart of the people’, – these thoughts by the famous Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei define the new form of art with a social engagement. A truly legendary artist, Ai Weiwei is one of the most influential figures in the world of contemporary art known for his installation art, eclectic oeuvre, and political activism. It is always crucial for an artist to have his philosophy and ideologies. The one who can define his way of seeking art reveals the treasure trove of explorations to the viewers, and most importantly, to oneself.
Ai Weiwei is the son of a poet, who found his father as the early source of inspiration and influence for his artistic career. His family lived in exile for twenty years. To survive as a child, Ai learned several practical skills that he would subsequently apply to his art – such as making furniture and bricks. His father’s poetic artistry and the family’s precarious political situation were to have a deep effect on the artist in him.
He was one among the primary members of the political group of artists who wanted to reintroduce the concept of art as self-expression to China. Everything he did for a better society made him a street artist and an odd jobber. The politically sensitive themes and conceptual ideas he put forth recognized him as a problem child to the government.
Creating works that focus on human rights abuses using video, photography, wallpaper, and porcelain is his genre. His thoughts and ideas brought admiration and criticism in equal amounts. His theme of art was developed by studying at the Beijing Film Academy and Parsons School of Design and Art Students League of New York. He returned to China to collaborate with Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron as the artistic consultant for the Beijing National Stadium for the 2008 Olympic Games.
From recording the results of Beijing’s developing urban infrastructure and its social conditions, to preserving a visual record of the city that is free of aesthetic judgment, he emerged into a video documentation career. He portrayed his thoughts and findings architecturally by revealing the rhythm of Beijing as a capital city, its cityscape, social structure, commercial buildings, socialist-planned economy, political power center, capitalist market, and industrial units as components of a multi-layered urban collage.
As an artist, he is not afraid of anything. The consequences of his action are not a matter to him. He does things that seem fine to him. He is the advocate of the quote: He preaches what he does. He is one of the earliest artists to use social media as a platform to express his thoughts to a wider audience. The government actively shutting down all his world exposures motivated him more to be an activist. His openly criticizing the government through his words and art limited his freedom of movement and communication both in and outside the country. Ai illustrates the power of visual art to move us as individuals, and sometimes entire nations to action. Ai’s work emphasizes the concept that art may have the potential, and also the responsibility to change society.
Ai collaborated on books that were published outside the official government channels, the books that promoted avant-garde Chinese art and became signposts for China’s underground art community. He is considered a rebel as he co-curated an exhibition of deliberately outrageous art as an alternative to Shanghai Biennale. He emphasized simplicity through the use of commonplace materials to start his design firm FAKE. His artwork, Fairytale (2007), a conceptual project, involved transporting 1,001 ordinary Chinese people to Kassel, Germany, to explore the city for the duration of its documentation art festival, informing the architectural idea of space.
Ai’s work entitled ‘Dropping a Han dynasty Urn’ is a reference to the cultural shift during China’s cultural revolution and highlights how cultural values are created and destroyed. His installation ‘Still Life’ suggests his complex feelings surrounding China’s handling of social history. To illustrate his thought he used around 4000 stone ax-heads – dating back to China’s Stone Age around 6000 BC – painstakingly laid out on the floor.
Ye Haiyan’s Belongings, 2013 is an installation for a social issue. Ye Haiyan is an activist evicted from her home by the Chinese government for raising her voice for women’s rights in China. When the government left her, her daughter, and their luggage on the side of a motorway, Ai has helped Ye Haiyan financially since she became homeless and eventually turned her hastily packed belongings into an artwork.
Recently, Ai Weiwei has been sighted in Germany and England, continuing to provide highly politically opinionated works of art. It seems to be his current routine to broadcast news about his activism and art on his Twitter, and you can even listen to some of his subversive tunes on Spotify!
Mia Forbes (2020) Understanding Ai Weiwei In 10 Works Of Art. [online]. Available at: https://www.thecollector.com/ai-weiwei/ [Accessed date: 20/June/2020].
Harriet Baker (2015). Ai Weiwei: 13 works to know . [online]. Available at: https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/article/ai-weiwei-13-works-to-know [Accessed 15 September 2015].