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Artist Profile

Ai Weiwei

China

Status: Under surveillance, experiencing continued harassment

Ai Weiwei is a child of dissidence. Born into a family of activists, Ai Weiwei spent his youth first in a labour camp in Beidahuang, Heilongjiang then in exile in Shihezi, Xinjiang. It’s no surprise then that his work is so deeply political and critical of the Chinese state. Whether it’s covering the floor of the Tate Modern with 150 tons of porcelain sunflower seeds or photographing himself flipping-off Mao’s mural on the walls of the Forbidden City, Ai’s work has drawn intense criticism from China’s communist party.

Following the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, Ai Weiwei launched a “citizens investigation” with writer Tan Zuoren. They believed corrupt government officials constructed structurally unsound schoolhouses to cut building expenses and pocket the savings. When the earthquake hit, the schoolhouses collapsed under the strain, killing over 5,000 students. Together they collected and commemorated the names of the students lost in the quake.

The following year, Tan Zuoren was arrested and put on trial on charges of “subverting state power”. Ai Weiwei attempted to testify at his friend’s trial, but was beaten fiercely by state officials. After complaints of head pain, it was discovered that Ai had a cerebral hemorrhage and he was flown to Munich, Germany where he underwent an emergency procedure to remove the blood pooling around his brain. Ai believes the hemorrhage was caused by the beatings.

Over the following years, Ai’s tensions with the state only escalated. In 2010, after hearing his newly built studio in Shanghai would be demolished by the local government, Ai planned to throw a party on the site in protest. State police then put him under house arrest to prevent the event. Needless to say it was held despite his absence. The studio, however, was demolished the following year.

While Ai was released the next day, this did not mark the end of his confrontations with the government. In April 2011, he was arrested in Beijing’s Capital International Airport as he was boarding his flight to Hong Kong. Ai disappeared, his studio and home were searched, and his computer was confiscated.

“I was in jail 81 days, but after 20 days my brain became completely empty; you need information to stay alive. When there’s no information you’re already dead. It’s a very, very strong test — I think more severe than any physical punishment.”

Initially police reported that his arrest was due to his departure papers not being in proper order, but these charges were then changed to “tax evasion”. He was eventually released on bail after a period of 81 days, during which time he endured what his sister described as psychological torture. Under constant surveillance in a continually lit cell, two guards stood close to Ai at all times, watching him even as he slept.

Since his release Ai has been under government surveillance and was barred from leaving China until July 2015 when his passport was returned. In October 2015, Ai discovered listening devices in both his studio and his home. After this discovery, Ai determined that continuing his work in and criticism of China was too dangerous. His focus has since shifted to criticism of Europe and its handling of Syria’s refugee crisis. For Ai, it was a way of staying relevant without being arrested. Despite this shift, there is no doubt Ai’s zeal and commitment to human rights has not dampened. 

By Ben Ballard, April, 2017.  

'Dumbass', the first track from Ai Weiwei's heavy metal album Divine Comedy.

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