Ai Weiwei (Chinese: 艾未未; pinyin: Ài Wèiwèi, English pronunciation (help·info); born 28 August 1957 in Beijing) is a Chinese Contemporary artist and activist. Ai collaborated with Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron as the artistic consultant on the Beijing National Stadium for the 2008 Olympics. As a political activist, he has been highly and openly critical of the Chinese Government’s stance on democracy and human rights. He has investigated government corruption and cover-ups, in particular the Sichuan schools corruption scandal following the collapse of so-called “tofu-dreg schools” in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. In 2011, following his arrest at Beijing Capital International Airport on 3 April, he was held for 81 days without any official charges being filed; officials alluded to their allegations of “economic crimes”.
Early life and work
Ai’s father was the Chinese poet Ai Qing, who was denounced during the Anti-Rightist Movement. In 1958, the family was sent to a labour camp in Beidahuang, Heilongjiang, when Ai was one year old. They were subsequently exiled to Shihezi, Xinjiang in 1961, where they lived for 16 years. Upon Mao Zedong’s death and the end of the Cultural Revolution, the family returned to Beijing in 1976.
In 1978, Ai enrolled in the Beijing Film Academy and studied animation. In 1978, he was one of the founders of the early avant garde art group the “Stars”, together with Ma Desheng, Wang Keping, Huang Rui, Li Shuang, Zhong Acheng and Qu Leilei. The group disbanded in 1983, yet Ai participated in regular Stars group shows, The Stars: Ten Years, 1989 (Hanart Gallery, Hong Kong and Taipei), and a retrospective exhibition in Beijing in 2007:Origin Point (Today Art Museum, Beijing). In 2014, Ai had a piece named, “Illumination (2014) is housed in the old prison hospital, which looks and feels like the set of a horror film needing no embellishment. For this work, Ai has installed recordings of Tibetan and Native American chants in two psychiatric evaluation rooms, which are tiled chambers created for the observation of mentally ill patients. In these cramped rooms, the rhythmic noises—spiritual, strong, and culturally significant—contrast with the shiny mint-colored walls. The mix of clinical and consciousness is startling, bringing presence to a place that even when it was open and functioning was meant to reduce human to subject. Both haunting and aesthetically delightful, this ambitious exhibition exposes issues of freedom of speech and human rights by creating artistic possibility within and about a broken system. Giving a collective voice to silenced dissidents might just prompt newly sympathetic ears.”
Awards and honors
2008 Chinese Contemporary Art Awards, Lifetime Achievement
2009 GQ Men of the Year 2009, Moral Courage (Germany); The Art Review Power 100, rank 43; International Architecture Awards, Anthenaeum Museum of Architecture and Design, Chicago, USA
2010 In March 2010, Ai received an Honorary Doctorate Degree from the Faculty of Politics and Social Science, University of Ghent, Belgium.
In September 2010, Ai received Das Glas der Vernunft (The Prism of Reason), Kassel Citizen Award, Kassel, Germany.
Ai was ranked 13th in ArtReview’s guide to the 100 most powerful figures in contemporary art: Power 100, 2010. In 2010, he was also awarded a Wallpaper Design Award for the Tsai Residence, which won Best New Private House.
2011 On 20 April 2011, Ai was appointed Visiting Professor of the Berlin University of the Arts.
In October 2011, when ArtReview magazine named Ai number one in their annual Power 100 list, the decision was criticized by the Chinese authorities. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin responded, “China has many artists who have sufficient ability. We feel that a selection that is based purely on a political bias and perspective has violated the objectives of the magazine”.
In December 2011, Ai was one of four runners-up in Time’s Person of the Year award. Other awards included: Wall Street Journal Innovators Award (Art); Foreign Policy Top Global Thinkers of 2011, rank 18; The Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation Award for Courage; ArtReview Power 100, rank 1; Membership at the Academy of Arts, Berlin, Germany; The 2011 TIME 100; The Wallpaper* 150; Honorary Academician at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, UK; and Skowhegan Medal for Multidisciplinary Art, New York, NY, USA.
2012 Along with Saudi Arabian women’s rights activist Manal al-Sharif and Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi, Ai received the inaugural Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent of the Human Rights Foundation on 2 May 2012. Ai was also awarded an Honorary Degree from Pratt Institute, honorary fellowship from Royal Institute of British Architects, elected as Foreign Member of Royal Swedish Academy of Arts, and recipient of The International Center of Photography Cornell Capa Award. Ai was ranked 3rd in ArtReview’s Power 100. He was one of 12 Visionaries honoured by Conde Nast Traveler, along with Hillary Clinton, Kofi Annan, and Nelson Mandela.
2013 In April, Ai received the Appraisers Association Award for Excellence in the Arts. Fast Company has listed him among its 2013 list of 100 Most Creative People in Business. His guest-edit in 18 October issue of The New Statesman has won an Amnesty Media Award in June 2013. He has received the St. Moritz Art Masters Lifetime Achievement Award by Cartier in August. His documentary Ping’an Yueqing(2012) has won the “Spirit of Independence” award at the Beijing Independent Film Festival. He was ranked no.9 in ArtReview’s Power 100. He received an honorary doctorate in Fine Arts at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, USA.
2015 On 21 May 2015, Ai, along with the folk singer Joan Baez, received Amnesty International’s Ambassador of Conscience Award, in Berlin, for showing exceptional leadership in the fight for human rights, through his life and work. The artist, who was at the time under surveillance and forbidden from leaving China, could not take part in the ceremony. His son Ai Lao accepted the prize on behalf of his father, called on the stage by Tate Modern director, Chris Dercon, who also spoke on behalf of the Chinese activist. Ai Weiwei wanted to pay tribute to those people in worse conditions than him, including civil rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang who faces eight years in prison, imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize-winning poet Liu Xiaobo, journalist Gao Yu, women’s rights activist Su Changlan, activist Liu Ping and academic Ilham Tohti.