Saturday, February 24, 2018

Ai Weiwei; by Kora Kwok

Ai Weiwei was born in Beijing in 1957. He is a Chinese artist and activist, whose diverse work includes sculptural installations, architecture, photography, and filmography. Due to his criticism of the Chinese government and the subversive nature of his art, Ai Weiwei has faced strong backlash from the Chinese authorities.   

Weiwei was interested in art as a child, and enrolled at the Beijing Film Academy in 1978. However, he felt restricted by his life in China, and moved to New York City in 1981, where he spent the next 12 years. There, he attended Parsons School of Design and became an active participant in the city’s subculture of artists and intellectuals. Ai’s time in the States was extremely important towards his personal development; it allowed him to live independently and liberally – as he said himself, he “enjoyed spiritual freedom there” ("Andy Warhol, Ai Weiwei," 38).

Descending Light – initial sketch and final product
Descending Light (2017)
Medium: brass, crystal, and electric bulbs

Although Ai started with painting, he began transitioning towards sculptural/physical installations over the next few years; among his inspirations were the German sculptor Joseph Beuys and French artist Marcel Duchamp.

When Ai returned to China in 1993, China had become significantly more modernized. Inspired by the relationship between China’s economic progress and the country’s cultural roots, Ai created pieces that combined traditional aspects of China with modern features – such as a coca cola logo painted onto a Han dynasty urn. In 1999, Ai transitioned to architecture – founding a design firm FAKE geared towards projects involving commonplace materials.

Coca Cola Vase (2011)
Medium: Acrylic on Han dynasty vase

Ai’s most famous works involve large-scale installations with some form of message behind them, often political. These installations typically involve large numbers of everyday objects, assembled to form some larger structure. For example, after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, where thousands of children died due to poor construction, Ai created Remembering (2009) – a Munich installation where 9,000 backpacks were arranged to form a quote from a victim’s mother. Another example is in 2016, when Ai put up 14,000 life jackets around the Konzerthaus Berlin concert hall to commemorate the refugees of the Syrian Civil War.

Installation of 14,000 life jackets at the Konzerthaus Berlin
Konzerthaus Berlin concert hall, 2016

I chose Ai Weiwei because I respect his work and his mission. He once said in an interview that anything with the power to change the world is art – and if that statement is true, he is the epitome of an artist. Ai brings attention to important global issues through his work, and I find that extremely admirable, especially given the oppression he faces in China for choosing to speak up.

Works Cited

“Ai Weiwei Drifting - art, awareness and the refugee crisis | DW Documentary.” YouTube. Uploaded by DW Documentary, June 21, 2017,

"Andy Warhol, Ai Weiwei." National Gallery of Victoria. New Haven, 2015.

Cunningham, John M. "Ai Weiwei." Encyclopedia Britannica, January 2018. Accessed February 24, 2018.

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