Culture & Art / Politics

Ai Weiwei: Navigating Art and Activism

Redefining the Boundaries Between Art and Life

by Kristina P.

ai weiwei study of perspective tiananmen

Study of Perspective – Tiananmen (1995) © Ai Weiwei, via

Ai Weiwei is one of the most, if not the most, famous Chinese contemporary artists in the West. He is considered the first of the avant-garde Chinese artists to have drawn a portrait of Mao Zedong. He is also well known for his rejection of the state created by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP); in a photograph he took in 1995, Ai Weiwei shows his middle finger pointing right next to the portrait of Mao. He thereby signified his right to free speech and his contempt towards the sacred site of the CCP – Tiananmen Square where the People’s Republic of China was proclaimed in 1949. In another picture, Ai Weiwei is naked, covering himself with a statuette of a horse head, and the title of the photograph reads “Mud Grass Horse Covering the Center” which, in Mandarin Chinese sounds identical to an insult towards the CCP.

These pictures are part of Ai Weiwei’s body of work, which includes paintings, architectural creations, monumental installations as well as activist documentaries and Internet projects. A large part of his work can be qualified as provocative, defying the political order, social prudery, and going against the idea that ancient artifacts should be put in museums or sold at auctions. Ai Weiwei summarizes his attitude towards his art as such: “An artwork unable to make people feel uncomfortable or to feel different is not one worth creating.”[1] On one hand, it is a rebellion. As French writer and philosopher Albert Camus put it: “With rebellion, awareness is born.”[2] On the other hand, Ai Weiwei believes in asserting his right to his freedom of expression, whatever it entails. In fact, it often feels like he is trying to drag the viewer out of their comfort zone to join him in his “desire to breathe.”[3]

ai weiwei han dynasty urn breaking

Ai Weiwei documenting his breaking of an urn dating from the Han dynasty (3rd century BC – 3rd century AD) in 1995. © Ai Weiwei, image via

Ai Weiwei’s early career: artistic and socio-political awakening

Ai Weiwei was born on the 18th of May 1957 in Beijing. The story of his artistic path starts with his father Ai Qing (1910-1966) who was a popular Chinese poet and an intellectual who joined the Communist Party in 1942. In the late 1920s-early 1930s, Ai Qing studied art in France. According to Ai Weiwei, French art really left a mark on his father who “loved Rodin and Renoir” and was “heavily influenced by French poets – Apollinaire, Rimbaud, Baudelaire […]”[4]. Although a dedicated communist, during the Cultural Revolution Ai Qing was labeled a “rightist” and an “enemy of the people”, and was consequently sent down to the Xinjiang countryside in 1957. Ai Weiwei describes his childhood in Xinjiang as such: “Living conditions were extremely harsh, and education was almost non-existent. But I grew up within the Cultural Revolution, and we had to exercise and study criticism, from self-criticism to political articles by Chairman Mao and Karl Marx, Lenin and such. That was an everyday exercise and formed the constant political surroundings.” The crucial importance of socio-political criticism would re-surface in his artworks decades later.

Ai weiwei Ai qing family

Ai Weiwei and his dad, Ai Qing, in 1959. Image via

The Ai family returned to Beijing in 1976 where Ai Weiwei’s father “was rehabilitated and very popular again.” It is then, under the guidance of his father’s friends, that Ai Weiwei began to create his first artworks. Ai Weiwei’s first visual artworks were paintings that he described as “in the fashion of Munch.” Then in 1978 Ai Weiwei played a part in the creation of the ‘Stars’, a small group of young avant-garde artists, proponents of individualism and experimentalism. In 1981, Ai Weiwei left for the United States as he witnessed the imprisonment of the ‘Democracy Wall’ activists, and also because of his growing ambition to be a recognized artist: “In my mind I already thought New York was the capital of contemporary art. And I wanted to be on top.”

Ai Weiwei enrolled into the Parsons School of Design in New York the same year he had arrived in the US. There he “got introduced to [Marcel] Duchamp’s thinking” which would become one of his major artistic influences. At that point Ai Weiwei had shifted from paintings to installation and photography. The year 1988 marked his first solo exhibition in New York titled ‘Old Shoes – Safe Sex’ after two of his installation works, One Man Shoe and Safe Sex.

ai weiwei early work profile marcel duchamp

One of Ai’s early works: a profile of Marcel Duchamp molded from a hanger and sunflower seeds. © Ai Weiwei, via

But in 1993 Ai Weiwei made the decision to return to China after receiving news of his father’s illness. In the 12 years that Ai Weiwei spent in the US, China had surely changed and had more freedom to offer to her citizens in some respect. Yet, for Ai Weiwei it did not matter all that much, as the most important – the socio-political core of the regime – had not changed. In the years to follow Ai Weiwei published three books – The Black Book (1994), The White Book (1995) and The Grey Book (1997), which became important foundations for artists inside China. Each of the books featured works, interviews, essays and documents from Chinese and international artists; it contributed to spreading ideas and news from the art world within artistic circles in Beijing, at a time when such information was hard to obtain. Then in 1997 he co-founded the China Art Archives & Warehouse, the purpose of which was similarly to foster the young artistic scene in China.

Later on, he also got involved with architectural design. He established his studio, FAKE Design in 2003 and in 2006 he co-designed the ‘Bird’s Nest’ Olympic stadium built for 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

bird's nest beijing ai weiwei smog

The ‘Bird’s Nest’ on a smoggy day in Beijing. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Tangling life and art: Ai Weiwei’s body of work

Even though some of Ai Weiwei’s artworks constitute series, there is no evident line that could connect all of his artworks apart from visual simplicity. For Ai Weiwei art is more about the spur of the moment, about life itself; he explains that “After Duchamp I realized that being an artist is more about a lifestyle and attitude than producing some product.” Indeed, he does not limit himself to some particular media and some particular format of works – Ai Weiwei seems always ready to try doing things he has not done before.

However, there are still some recurring characteristics in his work. His installation works, for example, often communicate the idea of a sense of purposelessness: “It interests me to try and create something with no purpose to it; but to make art also creates a purpose.” In addition to that, all of Ai Weiwei’s works share an essence that has to do with his values as a human being. Ai Weiwei’s works talk about collective memory, the society he lives in, as well as justice and human rights. Above all, perhaps, he is preoccupied with individualism and individual consciousness: “We need to look at how we respond to the world, how we use our minds, what role we can play in society.”

Besides, the artist is known for not being scared to provoke the viewer – take, for example, the well-known series of photographs ‘Study of Perspective’. In these works created in the years 1995-2003 he is “giving the finger” to some of the most famous monuments, such as the White House in Washington D.C., the Tiananmen Square in Beijing, the Parliament in London, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, as well as to natural and city landscapes across China, Japan, Europe and Australia, and even his own studio in Beijing. To make his point about the necessity of individual awareness, he does not shy away from including himself; on the contrary, he pictures himself repeatedly, whether documenting his everyday activities or posing naked for his latest project.

ai weiwei sichuan earthquake tofu dreg schools

Ai Weiwei documenting the desolate landscape after the Sichuan Earthquake. © Ai Weiwei, via

But Ai Weiwei does not see himself standing alone in his fight for individual rights and freedoms, he sees himself as part of a generation of artists who were promoting ideas they believed in through their art, and using the experiences of the past to try to create a better future:

“We are a generation that had a sense of the past, which is the time of the Iron Curtain and of the communist struggle. It was a tough political struggle – it was against humanism and individualism and there was, as you know, strong censorship of anything not coming from China… We all knew about our parents’ fights for a new China, a modern China with a democracy and a science… We started to realize that the lack of freedom and of freedom of expression is what caused China’s tragedy. So this group of young people started to write poetry and to make magazines, adopting a democratic way of thinking. We started to act really self-consciously and with a self-awareness to try to achieve this – to fight for personal freedom.” (Ai Weiwei, p. 12)

This connection between the artist’s socio-political involvement and Ai Weiwei’s own activism surfaced very strongly after 2008, a year which marked the beginning of his troubles with the Chinese government.

Indeed in 2008, after the Sichuan Earthquake, Ai Weiwei got involved with the case of the so-called ‘tofu dreg schools’. During the earthquake a number of schools had collapsed, killing thousands of schoolchildren, and it was subsequently revealed that the schools had not been built following safety standards as local officials pocketed a large part of the money allotted to building the schools. Not only had the schools been built unsafely, but the Chinese government also refused to disclose the number of deaths following the earthquake, as it was deemed a state secret. What is more, after the earthquake any associational activity was approached with suspicion – to the extent that the gatherings of the parents of the dead children were prohibited. Ai Weiwei tried to shed some light on the tragedy. He gathered a team of volunteers who were working to collect the names of the deceased children: over 5,000 names ended up on the lists thanks to the work of the volunteers, while officials still failed to acknowledge the responsibility of the local government. Ai Weiwei also made a documentary of his visits to Sichuan and the work that volunteers were accomplishing, ever conscious of the power of images and of the necessity to record in order not to forget – and not to let officials rewrite history.

One year later, in 2009, Ai Weiwei came up with an installation ‘Remembering’ that was displayed on the outer façade of the Haus der Kunst museum in Munich, Germany. Inspired by the large amount of scattered backpacks he saw at the site of the collapsed schools, Ai presented an installation made from 9,000 school backpacks, which composed an inscription in Chinese characters. “She lived in this world happily for seven years” is a sentence from a letter sent by one of the mothers who lost her daughter in the Earthquake to Ai Weiwei. She also asked for her daughter to be remembered. It was important for Ai Weiwei to memorialize the Earthquake tragedy that once again highlighted the insensitivity of the Chinese government, and its zeal to conceal the facts as well as the level of corruption of local officials who had put their own profit before the security of the school buildings.

ai weiwei remembering haus der kunst sichuan earthquake

A close-up of the giant installation called ‘Remembering’, outside the Haus der Kunst (Munich, Germany). Image via

In his blog post dated 22nd of May 2008 Ai Weiwei wrote: “The true misfortune of the dead lies in the unconsciousness and apathy of the living, in the ignorance of the value of life by those who simply float through it, in our numbness toward the right to survival and expression, in our distortion of justice, equality, and freedom.”[5] These activities led the government to increase the surveillance that he was put under, as well as to keep a close eye on his projects and those who got involved in them. It also showed that Ai Weiwei’s activities encompassed the artistic realm and social activism within one larger framework: his life and his connection to a participative audience.

Ai Weiwei’s use of modernity to expand art’s boundaries

In 2006, Ai Weiwei started to post regular blog entries on his blog on and, starting from 2009 on Twitter. From this point on, he became a prolific writer, whose posts were widely read and discussed in China; Ai explains this new passion as such: “I like writing the most. If I have to value it against all human activities, writing is the most interesting form, because it relates to everybody and it’s a form that everybody can understand.”

This blogging activity became an extension of his art practice, in that he used his blog not only to voice his opinions and provoke public debates, but also to launch social and artistic projects. For example, for the 1-year anniversary of the Sichuan Earthquake, he invited his blog readers to choose the name of a victim of the earthquake, and to make a voice recording pronouncing the name; he received numerous entries which were then aggregated as a single file. While the content of this project is of socio-political relevance, the medium used is that of creation extended to the blogosphere: this in turn reflects how Ai Weiwei has embraced new communication technologies to build his artistic projects.

Likewise, the decision to involve the audience to participate in his projects shows how important it is for Ai Weiwei to emphasize the people’s need to be more involved in social and artistic processes. Indeed it seems that for him it is a way to make people experience participation as a very crucial feature of existence: at the scale of the state, he emphasizes the need for every citizen to assert their rights, as shown by his own protracted legal struggle to make the police recognize he was hit on the head by a police officer when he visited Sichuan to be a witness in the trial of dissident Tan Zuoren.

ai weiwei hospital self portrait police

A self-portrait taken while Ai Weiwei was in hospital some time after having receiving blows to his head by the Chinese police. © Ai Weiwei, via

It also seems that beyond the application of political rights, Ai Weiwei highlights the importance of the individual in a society that often denies the particular in favor of the collective. For his project titled ‘Fairytale’ he asked 1001 Chinese people of various origins to participate in his ‘exhibition’ which involved them flying to Kassel in Germany. He had pictures of each of the participants taken, and in the accompanying documentary film they all said facts about their lives and the reason why they chose to participate. In Kassel, visitors of the exhibition could walk around a large room in which there were the 1001 minimalistic beds serving as actual beds to the Chinese participants. Thereby Ai Weiwei once again linked socio-political activism, artistic creation, 21st century ‘participative’ social media and the insistence on the value of individuals.

As much as he plays with everything contemporary art has to offer an artist, Ai Weiwei could also be said to be a product of contemporary art. Far from drawing clear boundaries between his art installations and his other endeavors, he allows them to come together and to enrich one another. His activism is recorded on camera and then ‘serves’ as part of his body of work; his blog posts are featured in books about his art. In fact, Lee Ambrozy argues in her preface to the book dedicated to Ai Weiwei’s blog posts that “The somewhat unusual event of translating a Chinese blog for an English print publication has been enabled by the far-reaching definition of contemporary art.” [6]

Another aspect of his artwork is that he often relies on his team or craftsmen to build his artwork. He says: “I have very little involvement in the production of my works. I mainly make the decisions. I prefer to have other people implement my ideas. Or maybe I just have an idea, and somebody else can use it.”[7] The ‘Sunflower Seeds’, for example, were hand-painted by the Jingdezhen craftsmen, Jingdezhen being a city famous for its fine quality porcelain goods since the imperial times. In a sense, Ai Weiwei had created a small society in which everybody has a role to play in the process of achieving a result – which is always material and for-display.

ai weiwei sunflower seeds tate modern

100 million sunflower seeds made of porcelain were crafted in Jingdezhen (a Chinese city where the imperial porcelain used to be made) for Ai Weiwei’s “Sunflower Seeds” exhibition at the Tate Modern in London, UK (2010). © Associated Press

Albert Camus wrote: “A living man can be enslaved and reduced to the historic condition of an object. But if he dies in refusing to be enslaved, he reaffirms the existence of another kind of human nature which refuses to be classified as an object.”[8] Ai Weiwei, undeniably, refuses to be classified as an object – in a bold way mediated through art. His artworks call on others to join his refusal. Yet, within China Ai Weiwei does not have the same scope of audience as he does in the West. Besides, his fate remains uncertain, as he is currently under house arrest and not allowed to use his blog. He probably has become too much of an international contemporary art hero to suffer the fate of many political dissidents; yet what the Chinese government seems to be scared is what lies at the core of Ai Weiwei’s works: his emphasis on the individual right and duty to assert one’s rights, and his extensive way of communicating his opinions to a large audience, to in turn stir them to individual consciousness.


[1] Ai Weiwei’s blog post dated January 13, 2006 in Stahel, Urs, and Janser, Daniela (eds.) Ai Weiwei Interlacing. Fotomuseum Winterthur, Jeu de Paume, Steidl, 2011.

[2] Camus, Albert quoted in Padovano, Anthony T. The Estranged God: Modern Man’s Search for Belief, 1966, 109.

[3] Blog post dated April 26, 2006 in Stahel, Urs, and Janser, Daniela (eds.) Ai Weiwei Interlacing. Fotomuseum Winterthur, Jeu de Paume, Steidl, 2011.

[4] All quotes from Ai Weiwei are taken from Smith, Karen, Obrist, Hans Ulrich, and Fibicher, Bernard. Ai Weiwei. Phaidon Press Limited, 2009, pp. 9-85

[5] Siemons, Mark, and Weiwei, Ai. Ai Weiwei: So Sorry. Prestel, 2009, 17.

[6] Ambrozy, Lee (ed., trans.) Ai Weiwei’s Blog: Writings, Interviews, and Digital Rants, 2006-2009. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011, xvii.

[7] Klayman, Alison, and Schlesinger, Adam. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry. DVD. Directed by Alison Klayman. NY: Sundance Selects, 2012.

[8] Bower, Anthony (trans.) Camus, Albert. The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt. Random House LLC, 2012.


– Ambrozy, Lee (ed., trans.) Ai Weiwei’s Blog: Writings, Interviews, and Digital Rants, 2006-2009. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011.

– Bower, Anthony (trans.) Camus, Albert. The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt. Random House LLC, 2012.

– Klayman, Alison, and Schlesinger, Adam. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry. DVD. Directed by Alison Klayman. NY: Sundance Selects, 2012.

– Merewether, Charles (ed.) Ai Weiwei: Works, Beijing 1993-2003. Timezone 8 Ltd, 2013

– Padovano, Anthony T. The Estranged God: Modern Man’s Search for Belief, 1966.

– Siemons, Mark, and Weiwei, Ai. Ai Weiwei: So Sorry. Prestel, 2009.

– Smith, Karen, Obrist, Hans Ulrich, and Fibicher, Bernard. Ai Weiwei. Phaidon Press Limited, 2009.

– Stahel, Urs, and Janser, Daniela (eds.) Ai Weiwei Interlacing. Fotomuseum Winterthur, Jeu de Paume, Steidl, 2011.


One thought on “Ai Weiwei: Navigating Art and Activism

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s