Ai Weiwei

Biography of Ai Weiwei

The visionary art pioneer, Ai Weiwei, has had a life that can truly be said to be as successful, tumultuous, and as radical as his art. Through his ceaselessly inventive and often acerbic political work he is without doubt today's most recognized living artist. Indeed, ArtReview ranked Ai Weiwei the most powerful man in the art world in 2011. The son of the celebrated poet Ai Qing, Weiwei was born in Beijing in 1957 and spent his early years in a prison camp after his father was denounced as a criminal by the Mao regime. Moving to New York in the 1980s Ai Weiwei pursued his training in film, art, and design and even experienced life as a street artist.


The historical and socio-political conditions of contemporary China form the mainstay of much of Weiwei’s work and his critical position has frequently put him at loggerheads with the Chinese authorities. In 2011 he was put under house arrest for 81 days and accused of “economic crimes”. His popularity and the farcical nature of the accusations caused a global outcry and both the European Union and the U.S. denounced the actions of the Chinese authorities. During his incarceration Ai Weiwei was subjected to vicious beatings which caused a brain hemorrhage and even had his art studio demolished for supposedly being built without the necessary permits.


Courageous and charged with an artistic integrity that makes him uncompromising and steadfast, Ai Weiwei has never shied away from speaking his mind and for championing those without a voice. In response to the migrant crisis in Europe Ai Weiwei volunteered at a refugee camp in Lesbos and used his Instagram account to highlight the plight of the migrants and the thousands who had already perished at sea. Famously in 2010 Ai Weiwei filled the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern with porcelain sunflower seeds forming an infinite mass. Each seed had been individually sculpted and intricately painted by workers in the Chinese city of Jingdezhen, a town once famous for porcelain and now struggling to find its place in the modern world. The work drew attention to the “Made in China” label and brought into question the idea of economic exchange.


To commemorate the second anniversary of his release from imprisonment Weiwei released the music album The Divine Comedy in 2016. An online addict, the artist is said to have posted over 60,000 tweets in a period of less than two years. In 2015 Ai Weiwei’s son Ai Lao accepted on behalf of his incarcerated father the Amnesty International's Ambassador of Conscience Award presented by Chris Dercon, former director of Tate Modern. He has had retrospectives at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington DC in 2009 and Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum. In 2014 Ai Weiwei’s assistants withdrew his work from the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art after it was discovered that Ai Weiwei’s name had been omitted from both the Chinese and English press releases. Still relentlessly productive, Ai Weiwei employs a great deal of staff in his factory-like studio in Berlin but remains the “one who makes all the decisions”.

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