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
See CNN's complete coverage on China.
updated 12:10 AM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
President Xi Jinping's campaign to punish corrupt Chinese officials has hit its biggest target -- where can the campaign go from here?
updated 3:12 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
All you need to know about the tainted meat produce that affects fast food restaurants across China, Hong Kong, and Japan.
updated 10:30 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Some savvy individuals in China are claiming naming rights to valuable foreign brands. Here's how companies can combat them.
updated 5:11 AM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Is Xi Jinping a true reformist or merely a "dictator" in disguise? CNN's Beijing bureau chief Jaime FlorCruz dissects the leader's policies
updated 11:44 PM EDT, Mon July 7, 2014
With a population of 1.3 billion, you'd think that there would be 11 people in China who are good enough to put up a fight on the football pitch.
updated 2:31 AM EDT, Fri July 4, 2014
26-year-old Ji Cheng is the first rider from China to compete for competitive cycling's highest honor.
updated 7:24 AM EDT, Mon July 7, 2014
China's richest man, Wang Jianlin, may not yet be a household name outside of China, but that could be about to change.
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Thu July 3, 2014
When President Xi Jinping arrives in Seoul this week, the Chinese leader will have passed over North Korea in favor of its arch rival.
updated 2:56 AM EDT, Tue July 1, 2014
The push for democratic reform in Hong Kong is testing China's "one country, two systems" model.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon June 30, 2014
Along a winding Chinese mountain road dotted with inns and restaurants is Jinan Orphanage, a place of refuge and site for troubled parents to dump unwanted children.
updated 4:36 AM EDT, Thu June 26, 2014
CNN's Kristie Lu Stout invites Isaac Mao, Han Dongfang, and James Miles to discuss the rise of civil society in China and social media's crucial role.
updated 11:34 PM EDT, Wed June 25, 2014
Chen Guangbiao wants rich people to give more to charity and he'll do anything to get their attention, including buying lunch for poor New Yorkers.
updated 7:44 AM EDT, Thu June 26, 2014
Architects are planning to build the future world's tallest towers in China. They're going to come in pretty colors.
updated 7:47 AM EDT, Mon June 23, 2014
Anna Coren visits Yulin's annual dog meat festival. Dogs are part of the daily diet here, with an estimated 10,000 dogs killed for the festival alone.
updated 2:38 AM EDT, Thu June 19, 2014
People know little about sex, but are having plenty of it. We take a look at the ramifications of a lack of sex education in China.
updated 12:14 PM EDT, Mon June 16, 2014
A replica of the Effel Tower in Tianducheng, a luxury real estate development located in Hangzhou, east China's Zhejiang province.
What's the Eiffel Tower doing in China? Replica towns of the world's most famous monuments spring up all over China.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT