• Erika Argiolas


Ai Wei Wei was born in Beijing in 1957. Son of Ai Qing, revolutionary poet and painter - friend of Mao Zedong - lived a life in close conjunction between art and politics, criticized for his ideas, was sent with his family to a military re-education camp.

Ai Wei Wei therefore grows up in exile, in the Gobi desert. He will see Beijing for the first time only in 1976, at the age of 20.

In the capital, the artist immediately embarked on an artistic career and founded the Stars artistic group, with which he managed to bring an exhibition of contemporary art to a Chinese museum for the first time - the China Art Gallery. The exhibition had a great success and this only encouraged Ai to continue on his way.

He enrolled in the Beijing Film Academy and studied animation and deepen his knowledge of English, elements that both will lead him to continue with a move to the United States of America, where he will meet and fall in love with the great works of Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol. In New York he will attend the prestigious courses of Parsons The New School For Design and the Art Students League.


From 1981 to 1993, he lived in the United States. He was among the first generation of students to study abroad following China's reform in 1980, being one of the 161 students to take the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) in 1981.

The New York period culminated in a solo exhibition at the Ethan Cohen Gallery, but it was interrupted in 1993, when Ai had to return to China to assist his ailing father. A famous work by Ai Weiwei, the Profile of Duchamp, dates back to that time, along with Sunflower seeds: the silhouette of the French artist made with a hanger filled with sunflower seeds, a symbolic ingredient of Chinese culture.

After living for 12 long years in the United States, Ai is forced to return to China to be close to his seriously ill father.

Ai drags with him the stimulating air breathed in Manhattan and participates in the creation of an East Village in Beijing, the experiment of a commune of avant-garde artists that will end only a year later, when the painter Ma Liuming is arrested by the police for cooking naked in the courtyard. Meanwhile, the American aura surrounding him makes Ai Weiwei a point of reference in the eyes of contemporary Chinese artists. The result is three books dedicated to new trends: the Black Book, the White Book and the Gray Book, true manifestos of contemporary Chinese art.

Ai Weiwei is critical of the regime in terms of human rights and attacks the capitalist erosion of the millenary Chinese culture. For this reason, in 1995 he was filmed destroying a 2000-year-old Chinese urn by dropping it on the ground: the work is called Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn and is a clear provocation. A year earlier, again on a Han urn, he had affixed the Coca Cola logo. In the series of installations Forever (2003) he will use bicycles, the symbol of transport for excellence in China, to once again criticize mass production and conformity.


The earthquake, literally, comes in 2008: it is the Sichuan earthquake.

But a second earthquake - understood in a political sense - is launched on the blog opened in 2006 by Ai Weiwei in which the artist accuses the regime of lying about the causes of the collapses and the number of victims, which are about 70 thousand and for the most part children. The investigation leads to the blackout of the blog, interrogations and mistreatment.

But Ai Weiwei does not stop and in the same year he creates the works Snake Bag, a snake made of school backpacks, and the touching Rebar and Case, a set of wooden containers that evoke the shape of small coffins and reproduce the rods found in the rubble. Both works will be present years later, in 2016, at the Italian exhibition on Ai Weiwei, at Palazzo Strozzi in Florence.

The regime does not give up: in 2010 he demolished Ai Weiwei's studio in Malu Twon, and in 2011 he arrested the artist without any formal charge. This is followed by the pretext for tax evasion, which will lead 30,000 supporters to collect the money to pay the millionaire fine. The conflict with the central power, which lasted 4 years, stopped only in 2015 with the setting up of the exhibition Ai Weiwei in Beijing.

The Ai Weiwei phenomenon explodes worldwide in 2012, when it is recognized by a series of exhibitions in Paris, Washington, Berlin and London. A documentary about him, entitled Ai Weiwei: never sorry, tells the adventures between art and politics. In Italy it is also exhibited at Palazzo Te in Mantua, (The enchanted garden, 2015) and in Palermo (ZAC - Zisa Zona Arti Contemporanee, 2017).


In many of his works Ai Weiwei highlights how capitalism and consumerism in China are progressively erasing the nation's cultural and artistic heritage.

For example, in the work Han Dynasty Urn with Coca Cola Logo (1994) the artist "decorates" an ancient vessel of the Han dynasty with one of the most famous symbols of today's world. "I wanted to make it more current", the artist will explain.

Much more stir will generate the performance Dropping a Han Dinasy Urn (1995) in which the artist, wearing the typical clothes of Chinese workers, will be filmed while dropping a very precious Chinese cinerary urn about 2000 years old from his hands.

Besides being a contemporary artist, Ai Weiwei is also an architect. In fact, since 2001 he has been the owner of the FAKE Design studio, with which he collaborated as an artistic consultant for the design of the Beijing stadium for the 2008 Olympics: the famous Bird Nest. However, the artist will not preside over the inauguration in protest against the exploitation of workers during works for the preparation of the games.

It is in 2011 that an event takes place that will greatly affect Ai Weiwei's life. On April 3, the artist was arrested at the Beijing airport on charges of tax evasion.

The artist is illegally detained in a secret place for 81 days (the first thirty handcuffed). He is not given a chance to talk to anyone and is constantly followed by two silent guards. Only on the forty-third day is he allowed to speak with his wife.

The detention is followed by a $ 2.36 million fine, the withdrawal of his passport, the removal of his works from museums and the ban on publishing articles on the web or speaking to the press. His home is also being monitored by surveillance cameras and agents, while his name in China disappears from search engines.

Ai Weiwei will dedicate the work S.A.C.R.E.D. (2013), a six-part installation composed of six iron boxes depicting scenes from the chinese artist’s 81-day incarceration back in 2011. divided accordingly: (i) Supper, (ii) Accusers, (iii) Cleansing, (iv) Ritual, (v) Entropy, and (vi) Doubt.

In 2014 he created a maxi installation using LEGO bricks (1.2 million of bricks). The portraits of one hundred and seventy-six politically persecuted (from Mandela to Snowden, from Galileo to Dante). But when the artist asks LEGO for more bricks to "update" the work, the Danish company bans the supply because it is against the use of the product for political reasons.

Ai Weiwei then, quoting Duchamp, posts a photo on Instagram with the LEGO bricks

thrown into a toilet. Such a fuss arises that LEGO has to back down and waive the ban.

In 2015 Ai Weiwei received the Ambassador Of Conscience Award from Amnesty International, for his actions in support of human rights. In the same year, the artist's passport was returned. He takes the opportunity to go to Germany where his wife and son live and then to Lesbos, to follow the plight of the migrants firsthand.

Many of his 2016 works take up this theme, such as the temporary installation Reframe, created for Palazzo Strozzi in Florence.

Recent Posts

See All

To play, press and hold the enter key. To stop, release the enter key.