Ai WeiWei (b.1957, China)

Ai Weiwei is one of China‘s most sought-after and well-remunerated artists, with a rising profile in the architecture world, in part because of the notoriety he has gained as a dissident. Mr. Ai helped design the Olympic National Stadium known as the Bird’s Nest for the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing.

Known for his sharp tongue, Mr. Ai is one of the most outspoken critics of the Chinese Communist Party. He has demanded democracy in China, criticized government corruption for playing a role in the deaths of schoolchildren in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and stridently supported Liu Xiaobo, a political prisoner who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010.

In January 2011, Mr. Ai’s studio, which was to be used as an education center and a site for artists in residence, was demolished. Mr. Ai believed that his advocacy in two causes might have prompted Shanghai officials to order the razing. The first was that of Yang Jia, a Beijing resident who killed six policemen in a Shanghai police station after being arrested and beaten for riding an unlicensed bicycle. Mr. Yang became a hero among many Chinese, and was later executed. The second was the Kafkaesque case of Feng Zhenghu, a lawyer and activist who spent more than three months in Tokyo’s Narita Airport after Shanghai officials denied him entry. Mr. Ai made a documentary about Mr. Feng’s predicament.

In April 2011,  Mr. Ai was detained by the authorities at Beijing International Airport just before he was to board a plane for Hong Kong. He was taken to a secret detention center on the city’s outskirts and spent the next 81 days watched round the clock by rotating pairs of young soldiers. He was released in June of 2011, having lost much of his familiar girth.

Several months after his release, Mr. Ai received a punitive $2.4 million tax bill. The government announced that he was guilty of tax evasion and gave him until Nov. 15, 2011, to pay the back taxes it said he owed, plus large penalties. It claimed that his April detention had been for tax evasion, not activism, as Mr. Ai said. He posted $1.3 million with Chinese tax authorities to contest the bill.

In May 2012, a Beijing court agreed to hear a lawsuit that Mr. Ai filed against local tax officials for demanding that he pay the tax bill. But Mr. Ai was not allowed to attend the hearing, which was held in June. While Mr. Ai’s wife and legal advisers sat in on the hearing, Mr. Ai sent messages on Twitter that ridiculed the authorities and condemned an assault by the police on one of his videographers. Mr. Ai posted a photograph of the filmmaker’s injuries and a portrait of himself wearing a mischievous grin and an ill-fitting police uniform.

In July 2012, Mr. Ai lost his appeal in a verdict that surprised no one. The Chaoyang District Court rejected Mr. Ai’s argument that Chinese tax authorities had violated their own procedures when they raided his home studio in 2011 and then bundled him off for nearly three months of interrogation. Mr. Ai’s disappearance, and the details of his solitary confinement, provoked international condemnation. It also failed to silence him.

Mr. Ai said he was disappointed by the decision to reject his appeal of a ruling by Beijing tax authorities but expressed characteristic resolve, saying he would continue to battle against the authorities by filing lawsuits in other courts.

His celebrity is expected to be burnished even more after a documentary about him, “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” opened in the United States in July 2012.

In perhaps the most extraordinary footage in the film, which Mr. Ai himself supplied, police in Sichuan invade his hotel room in the middle of the night and beat him so severely that he has to undergo surgery in Germany for a cranial hemorrhage. When he complains, they mock him, saying he must have hit himself; and when he tries to file a complaint at a police station, his effort is thwarted by bureaucracy.

The Government’s Campaign

In their public statements, the government claimed that Mr. Ai’s design company, Beijing Fake Cultural Development, had evaded 15 million renminbi, or $2.4 million, in taxes. Beyond objecting to procedural violations, his lawyers have maintained that Mr. Ai was not liable to prosecution because his wife, Lu Qing, is the company’s legal owner. The lawyers also say they have been unable to review the thousands of pages of financial documents that were seized during the raid and were barred from photocopying transcripts from an earlier hearing.

As part of the terms of his bail, Mr. Ai was forbidden to leave Beijing for a year. He was also told not to resume his prodigious use of social media or to speak to the media. He held up his end of the bargain for a few weeks, breaking it to denounce via Twitter the treatment of business colleagues who had been detained with him and expressing support for two other incarcerated dissidents.

Despite the government’s public stance that their prosecution was solely focused on financial crimes, Mr. Ai later told journalists his inquisitors were uninterested in taxes. He said the interrogations sought to uncover his role in what overseas Web sites had titled the Jasmine Revolution, a call for Chinese to take to the streets in an Arab Spring-style protest movement. Mr. Ai denied any role in what turned out to be a nonevent.

The government’s legal victory is unlikely to dent Mr. Ai’s finances. In November 2011, his supporters donated $1.4 million to pay the bond for the tax appeal.

By singling out Mr. Ai, the authorities appeared to expand a campaign against dissent that has roiled China’s embattled community of liberal and reform-minded intellectuals. Dozens of people have been detained, including some of the country’s best-known writers and rights advocates. At least 11 of them have simply vanished into police custody. 

Conflict Viewed as Art

Mr. Ai views his escalating conflict with government officials over the Communist Party’s authoritarian rule as performance art.

His father, Ai Qing, was perhaps the best-known poet of his generation, and among the most acclaimed Chinese literary figures of the 20th century. During the Cultural Revolution, Mr. Ai and his family were exiled from Beijing for nearly 20 years. The family lived in Xinjiang, a region in northwest China, and later further north in a quasi-military re-education camp on the edge of the Gobi Desert. They were allowed to return when Mr. Ai was 19; his father was exonerated in 1978.

Mr. Ai attended the Beijing Film Institute and later studied briefly at the Parsons School of Design and the Art Students League in New York. Returning to China, he restored the family name to prominence while producing sharp political artwork.

Mr. Ai is known for his avant-garde photographs and sculptures and for his blend of traditional Chinese elements and modern style.

Run-ins With Authorities

Mr. Ai has run afoul of the authorities before. In 2009, he said he was beaten by officers who crashed though the door of his hotel room in the middle of the night while he was preparing to testify at the trial of a fellow dissident in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan. A month later, while attending an art exhibition in Munich, he was rushed to a hospital, where surgeons drained a pool of blood from his brain. Doctors said he would have died without the emergency surgery.

In November 2010, he was briefly confined to his home in Beijing by police officers, who he said were instructed to prevent him from attending a party in Shanghai he had organized to commemorate the destruction of a million-dollar art studio that had been built at the behest of the local government. Although he never found out who ordered the demolition, he said he suspected powerful figures in Shanghai who were most likely angered by his freewheeling criticism of the government.

Until now, Mr. Ai’s stature has given him wide latitude in leveling public critiques against corruption and the strictures of Communist Party rule. In 2010, he created an Internet audio project in which volunteers read the names of nearly 5,000 children who were killed during the earthquake in Sichuan Province in 2008. The project and a haunting art installation in Germany composed of thousands of children’s backpacks were aimed at drawing attention to substandard construction that some experts say led to the collapse of many schools.


WeiWei, Ai b.1957

artworks in collection

related artists / China / Far East