Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei's art becomes his messenger

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

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.

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."

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"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.

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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.