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Ai Weiwei: Artist, architect and outspoken social critic

Sculptor Daniel Buren is the latest person to cancel an exhibition in China to protest against the detention of artist Ai Weiwei. takes a closer look at Ai, whose political activism has put him in the spotlight as much as his art.


Just last week, London-based sculptor Anish Kapoor pulled his work out of an exhibition at Beijing’s National Museum of China in protest against Chinese authorities’ detention of dissident artist Ai Weiwei.

Now prominent French sculptor Daniel Buren is doing the same. Buren, who is best known for his black-and-white striped columns in the courtyard of Paris’s Palais Royal (near the Louvre), told the French press on Friday that he was cancelling his exhibition at the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art in “solidarity” with the artist. The exhibition was scheduled to open at the centre in Beijing in mid-July.

Ai Weiwei, a 54-year-old artist, architect and social critic, was arrested on April 3 on charges of “economic crimes” and his subsequent detention in an undisclosed location has caused a wave of outrage in the international arts community.

New York’s Guggenheim Museum launched an online petition that has drawn 142,755 signatures so far. Other leading art museums around the world, including New York’s Museum of Modern Art, London’s Tate, South Korea’s Gwangju Biennale, and Paris’ National Museum of Modern Art, have promoted the petition through their Web sites, Twitter, and Facebook accounts.

Sunflower Seeds 2010, Tate Photography, © Ai Weiwei
Sunflower Seeds 2010, Tate Photography, © Ai Weiwei

As an artist and architect, the famously outspoken Ai is perhaps best known for having helped design the Olympic National Stadium (otherwise known as the “Bird’s Nest”) for the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing. His photography and sculptures have been widely praised in art circles for their mix of avant-garde and traditional stylistic elements.

But Ai has come to be known for his political activism as much as for his craft. Ai’s blunt criticism of the Chinese Communist Party, his investigation into the government’s role in school collapses following the 2008 Sichuan quake, and his repeated calls for democracy have long made him a target of Chinese authorities.

His vocal support for political prisoner Liu Xiabo, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, also irritated Chinese officials.

A thorn in the side of Chinese authorities

Ai’s political engagement has deep family roots. His father, Ai Qing, was a highly regarded poet who was forced to leave Beijing during the Cultural Revolution, as part of the Communists’ effort to isolate artists whose work was deemed in some way pro-capitalism.

After living for almost 20 years in northern China, he was allowed to return to Beijing. Ai Weiwei was 19 at the time.

This past January, when Ai’s studio was demolished, the artist accused Shanghai authorities of destroying his place of work as an act of vengeance. Ai had recently riled officials by publicly defending Yang Jia, a man from Beijing who killed six policemen after being arrested and beaten for riding a bicycle without a permit.

The charge of “economic crimes” cited when Ai was first arrested is commonly used to justify the detention of political dissidents in China. In late May, authorities specified that Ai was suspected of tax evasion.

© Andre-Pierre via Flickr under the CC license
© Andre-Pierre via Flickr under the CC license

But despite his imprisonment, Ai’s new work has continued to be shown around the world in exhibitions that have become political, as well as artistic events. In late April, Berlin’s Neugerriemschneider Gallery opened a display of Ai’s sculptures accompanied by a large banner that read “Where is Ai Weiwei?”.

In early May, the Lisson Gallery of London kicked off an exhibition devoted to new pieces from Ai; and a new sculpture called “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads” (pictured left), featuring twelve bronze animal heads, was unveiled in New York last month.

At a ceremony for the unveiling of the sculpture, New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg called Ai “one of the most talented, respected and masterful artists of our time”, and various high-profile artists read out famous quotes from Ai’s interviews and writings.

The Guggenheim Museum’s top Asian art curator, Alexandra Munroe, closed the proceedings by reading what has now become one of the artist’s most noted reflections: “Without freedom of speech there is no modern world, just a barbaric one.”

Paris's contemporary art museum La Galerie nationale du Jeu de Paume is currently planning an extensive exhibition devoted to Ai’s photography and videos for early 2012.

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