Skip to main content

Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei's art becomes his messenger

By Greg Clary, CNN
updated 7:32 PM EDT, Thu October 25, 2012
Ai Weiwei poses in 2009 at the Mori Art Museum inTokyo with his work "Provisional Landscape" (2002-2008). It's now on display at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington. Ai Weiwei poses in 2009 at the Mori Art Museum inTokyo with his work "Provisional Landscape" (2002-2008). It's now on display at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington.
HIDE CAPTION
'Ai Weiwei: According to What?'
'Ai Weiwei: According to What?'
'Ai Weiwei: According to What?'
'Ai Weiwei: According to What?'
'Ai Weiwei: According to What?'
'Ai Weiwei: According to What?'
'Ai Weiwei: According to What?'
'Ai Weiwei: According to What?'
'Ai Weiwei: According to What?'
'Ai Weiwei: According to What?'
'Ai Weiwei: According to What?'
'Ai Weiwei: According to What?'
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Dissident artist Ai Weiwei's work is now in Washington at the Hirshhorn Museum
  • Ai's most famous work is the "Bird's Nest" stadium from the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing
  • "Ai Weiwei's art and his activism resonate far beyond the art world," museum officials say

(CNN) -- Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei may not be allowed to leave his native China, but his art is free to travel the globe, and some of it is now on display in Washington.

"Ai Weiwei: According to What?" marks the first North American exhibition of Ai's work. His art sprawls around an entire floor in the Smithsonian Institution's Hirshhorn Museum.

The outspoken artist, blogger, filmmaker and architect is perhaps best known for helping design the famous "Bird's Nest" Olympic stadium for the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing. Some of the artwork on display includes photos taken of the stadium while under construction. Ai later said he regretted his work on it because instead of the venue becoming a place for all, it became a place for the elite.

Ai was on his way to Hong Kong in April 2011 when he was taken into custody at Beijing's international airport and detained for 81 days amid a government crackdown on political activists. His studio in Beijing was raided, and his wife and several employees were taken into custody for questioning.

Dissident artist goes 'Gangnam Style'
Behind the scenes with Ai Weiwei

Seven weeks after Ai was taken into custody, state news agency Xinhua reported that Beijing police said his company evaded a "huge amount of taxes" and "intentionally destroyed accounting documents."

Ai Weiwei loses tax evasion appeal

"My detention was an extreme condition for any human to endure. Many, including my family and the people who know me and care about the incident, were frustrated by the lack of an explanation or reason," Ai said in a statement to the museum.

"Going through these events allowed me to rethink my art and the activities necessary for an artist," he said.

Ai was released on one year's probation in June 2011, with heavy restrictions imposed on his movements. The Chinese government still holds his passport.

Ai's criticism of the Chinese government gained attention following the 2008 Sichuan earthquake that left nearly 90,000 people dead or missing. Many of the victims were students who died when their poorly constructed schools collapsed on them. Ai has compiled a list of more than 5,000 of those students. Part of the list is on display at the museum, accompanied by audio of people reading the names of the students.

Ai Weiwei will not be silenced

Ai also has a work called "Snake Ceiling" on display, made of hundreds of backpacks latched together in the shape of a snake. These are meant to represent children's backpacks left behind after the earthquake. Ai said he saw numerous piles of backpacks outside schools when he traveled to Sichuan following the disaster.

Some of the works take a personal tone, with pictures of Ai at a hospital following surgery to relieve pressure on his brain following what he said was from a beating by Chinese police. A medical scan shows the damage caused to his skull and brain.

The exhibit will be on display at the Hirshhorn through February before it moves on to other venues in the United States and Canada.

And having this work on the doorstep of policy-makers certainly isn't lost on museum officials.

"Ai Weiwei's art and his activism resonate far beyond the art world and encourage an expanded dialogue on crucial social, cultural, and political issues of the day," said Hirshhorn Museum Director Richard Koshalek in a catalogue detailing the exhibit.

Ai Weiwei paints bleak picture of his and China's future

Despite the personal toll his work has taken on him, Ai said the struggle has been worth it.

"The struggle is worthwhile if it provides new ways to communicate with people and society," Ai said.

CNN's Alexis Lai contributed to this report.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 7:06 AM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
China is building an island in the South China Sea that could accommodate an airstrip, according to IHS Jane's Defence Weekly.
updated 5:57 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
North Korean refugees face a daunting journey to reach asylum in South Korea, with gangs of smugglers the only option.
updated 6:19 PM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
China and "probably one or two other" countries have the capacity to shut down the nation's power grid and other critical infrastructure.
updated 5:39 AM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
It'd be hard to find another country that has spent as much, and as furiously, as China on giving its next generation a head start.
updated 12:32 AM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
In 1985, Meng Weina set up China's first private special needs school in the southern city of Guangzhou.
updated 3:14 PM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
Despite China's inexorable economic rise, the U.S. is still an indispensable ally, especially in Asia. No one knows this more than the Asian giant's leaders, writes Kerry Brown.
updated 10:38 PM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
For the United States and China to announce a plan reducing carbon emissions by almost a third by the year 2030 is a watershed moment for climate politics on so many fronts.
updated 3:26 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
China shows off its new stealth fighter jet, but did it steal the design from an American company? Brian Todd reports.
updated 8:01 PM EST, Mon November 10, 2014
Airshow China in Zhuhai provides a rare glimpse of China's military and commercial aviation hardware.
updated 8:14 AM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
A new exchange initiative aims to bridge relations between the two countries .
updated 12:51 AM EST, Tue November 11, 2014
Xi and Abe's brief summit featured all the enthusiasm of two unhappy schoolboys forced to make up after a schoolyard dust-up.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Mon November 10, 2014
Maybe you've decided to show your partner love with a new iPhone. But how about 99 of them?
updated 9:19 PM EST, Sun November 2, 2014
Can China's Muslim minority fit in? One school is at the heart of an ambitious experiment to assimilate China's Uyghurs.
updated 9:55 AM EST, Tue November 4, 2014
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is one of thousands of Americans learning Chinese.
updated 12:00 AM EST, Tue November 4, 2014
Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou says he needs to maintain good economic ties with China while trying to keep Beijing's push for reunification at bay.
updated 1:28 AM EDT, Thu October 30, 2014
Chinese drone-maker DJI wants to make aerial photography drones mainstream despite concerns about privacy.
updated 1:18 AM EDT, Wed October 29, 2014
A top retired general confesses to taking bribes, becoming the highest-profile figure in China's military to be caught up in war on corruption.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT