By: Victoria Yates
In 1978 Ai enrolled at the Beijing Film Academy, serving as one of the founders of the earlygroup 'Stars'. He left China in 1981 for the United States, settling in New York and focusing on creating conceptual art and studying at the Parsons School of Design. His life in America was somewhat itinerant, taking on various temporary jobs and moving ten times, each time discarding works for lack of space. When his father fell ill in 1993 he returned home, a decision he did not take lightly given the negative experiences of his childhood. It was the 1989 events in Tiananmen Square that convinced him, returning with the full expectation that he might at some point suffer a similar fate to his father at the hands of the State.
Ai established an experimental artists' Beijing East Village and wrote various books about this burgeoning generation of Chinese artists He also designed and co-founded the China Art Archives and Warehouse in 1997 as a contemporary art archive and experimental gallery showcasing art from the People's republic of China. He remained busy in the art scene over the next few years, developing his love of architecture and founding the architecture studio FAKE design in 2003. It was a talent that soon brought Ai considerable recognition. In particular a project in upstate New York for two private art collectors was selected for the International Architecture Awards, one of the world's most prestigious global architecture and design awards. The following year (2010) Wallpaper magazine nominated the project for "Best New House".
Ai's artwork has likewise received a huge amount of critical acclaim, showing in galleries across the world. He was featured in theVenice in 1999, 12 in 2007, and the Liverpool Biennial International in 2008 (to name a few). There have been several high profile retrospectives of his work including So Sorry. An exhibition ran from 2009-2010 in Munich and whose title refers to the thousands of apologies issued by governments, industries, and corporations worldwide to make up for tragedies, , and missteps (but often lacking in any real shouldering of consequences). In particular Ai was targeting the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, questioning why thousands of children were killed in their classrooms and why the government refused to officially explain.
His Sunflower Seeds in the Tate Turbine Hall was highly publicized, not least because the inherent political and social critique themes in his work, and his outspoken nature in China, had been causing mounting friction between Ai and the Chinese government. During the creation of his celebrated Olympic structure, the 'Bird's Nest', he vocally disavowed his role, decrying the government's decision to turn the event into a patriotic celebration rather than an opportunity to rethink the restricted society. Despite the obvious dangers, Ai has always spoken out against the government, calling it "unimaginative, prevaricating, suspicious of its own people and utterly focused on self-preservation" in one interview. Such a tone has led his detractors to accuse him of working for the West, but in reality the artist has often called for greater freedom for China, asking that Western leadership support the push towards more "uncontrolled space in a still-closed society."
In recent years Ai's outspoken attitude of dissent has become ever more dangerous to him. He has been frequently beaten and detained by government forces, most famously disappearing for 81 days in the summer of 2011 after being detained trying to catch a flight to Hong Kong. During this period he was interrogated some 50 times. His assistant similarly remained missing for a long period of time. Shortly after his release, the government accused him of tax evasion, landing him with a $2.4 million bill, a sum he paid two weeks later in a $1.3 million bond and loans from Chinese supporters who had contributed online, in person, and even by throwing money over his studio wall.
In November the artist was again under investigation by the government, this time on charges of spreading pornography. The claims follow Ai's series of nude portraits with four women, a move he says the government see as potentially holding a political meaning criticizing the government. In response his supporters have similarly stripped off and posted the images on social media sites and blogs, some strategically covering their bodies, others subverting the theme with pictures of themselves as young children, and a few choosing to bare all without apology.
The future of Ai Weiwei and his dissention towards the Chinese government is still unfolding and as the government continues to escalate their relationship with the artist many fear for his future in China. Few contemporary artists dare to so openly and unashamedly criticize such a powerful regime while remaining within its borders; fewer still would stay after such brutal and unpredictable treatment.
But Ai is torn by the call to move abroad, afraid that such a move would mean permanent exile from home and by the strong sense that he owes it to a lot of people to continue to experience, transmit, and question the reality of life within China's limits. He is a leader not only within the art world where he has made his reputation and his legacy, but also increasingly as a beacon of political, artistic, and personal freedom to his countrymen and across the world.