Early Life & Childhood
Ai Weiwei was born on August 28, 1957, in Beijing, China, to Chinese poet Ai Qing. As a result of his father’s denouncement from the ‘Anti-Rightist Movement,’ Ai’s family was sent to a labor camp in Beidahuang and was eventually exiled to Shihezi, Xinjiang.
In his youth, Ai developed a keen interest in arts and enrolled at the ‘Beijing Film Academy’ to study animation. In 1978, he co-founded an “avant garde” group named the ‘Stars.’ The group eventually disbanded in 1983.
He then moved to New York to attend the ‘Parsons School of Design’ and started focusing on painting, followed by sculpturing.
His works were similar to those of French artist Marcel Duchamp and German sculptor Joseph Beuys. He also studied English at the ‘University of Pennsylvania’ and the ‘University of California, Berkeley.’
He stayed in the US from 1981 to 1993 and was one of the first students from his country to take the ‘Test of English as a Foreign Language’ (TOEFL). In 1983, he joined the ‘Art Students League of New York’ but later dropped out.
He started working on his art, street portraits, and photography. He also developed an interest in turning readymade objects into art. Eventually, he began using his talent to earn a living.
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During his time in the US, he also captured photos of his surroundings. His collection of photos was later known as the ‘New York Photographs.’
After successfully exhibiting his art in New York, Ai moved back to Beijing due to his father’s deteriorating health. On returning, he started learning about Chinese culture and mixed it with his own advanced version of artwork.
He painted the ‘Coca-Cola’ logo on a Han dynasty urn and used pieces from the Ming and the Qing dynasties to form various configurations. During this time, he also published the books ‘Black Cover Book’ (1994), ‘White Cover Book’ (1995), and ‘Gray Cover Book’ (1997).
In 1997, he co-founded the ‘China Art Archives & Warehouse’ (CAAW), which was one of the first art spaces in the country. In 1999, he designed and established his own studio in Caochangdi.
He was the curator of the ‘Jinhua Architecture Park’ in 2002. In 2006, he co-designed the ‘Tsai Residence,’ which was selected as the venue for the ‘Chicago Athenaeum Museum of Architecture and Design’s ‘International Architecture Awards.’
Due to his increased interest in architecture, Ai opened the studio named ‘FAKE Design’ in 2003. He also conducted and curated various art exhibitions, including one titled ‘Fuck Off’ with Feng Boyi.
In 2007, he brought 1,001 Chinese citizens to Kassel, Germany, as part of his ‘Fairytale Project’ at ‘Documenta 12.’ In 2008, he designed the ‘Beijing National Stadium’ with Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron for the 2008 ‘Beijing Summer Olympics.’
‘Sunflower Seeds,’ or ‘Kui Hua Zi,’ is an art installation with 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds created by Ai and was first exhibited in 2010 at the ‘Tate Modern’ art gallery in London. It has been exhibited in 12 exhibitions across the world between 2009 and 2013.
His first international show took place in 2012. However, he was not able to attend it due to his exile. By then, he was accused of conspiring against the Chinese government.
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The exhibition was titled ‘Entrelacs.’ It was dedicated to ‘Jeu De Paume,’ an art center for modern and post-modern photography and media in Paris.
In 2013, he curated another exhibition, titled ‘Resistance and Tradition,’ at the ‘Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo.’ Some of his other famous works are ‘Remembering,’ ‘Bird’s Nest,’ ‘Descending Light,’ ‘Cube Light,’ and ‘Rooted Upon.’
Ai’s work was also presented at an exhibition called ‘According to What?’ in the UK in 2014.
Ai started as a prolific blogger for China’s internet platform ‘Sina Weibo’ in 2005. His critical views about the Chinese government resulted in the shutdown of the blog in 2009.
He took to ‘Twitter’ to continue writing but announced in 2013 that hewas quitting the platform. In 2008, 10 days after the devastating Sichuan earthquake, Ai sent his team to visit the disaster-hit areas and to film it all.
He accused the government of hiding names of many students who had lost their lives in the earthquake. He himself launched a ‘Citizens’ Investigation’ campaign and accumulated more than 5,000 names missed by the government. He was beaten by the police for trying to testify for a fellow activist in Chengdu. This caused internal bleeding in his head.
In 2010, he was put under house arrest to stop him from preventing the demolition of his Shanghai studio. He was accused of illegal construction of the structure and even received a prior notice by the municipal authorities before the demolition.
In January 2011, his studio was demolished. Following this, he was released from house arrest but was banned from leaving China. The same year, he was arrested at the ‘Beijing Capital International Airport’ for alleged “economic crimes.”
He was released almost 3 months later but had the support of people all the time. In November that year, he received a tax bill of 15 million Yuans ($2.4 million). A company he owned, ‘Beijing Fa Ke Cultural Development Ltd,’ had allegedly evaded taxes.
Donations poured in from all over the world, and close to 9 million RMB were collected within 10 days. The court rejected Ai’s appeal. He spent a good amount of days in jail, until he was finally released. However, his property was confiscated by the Chinese government.
In 2015, he was allowed to leave China.