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Ai WeiWei Essay

March 5, 2011

Ai WeiWei

Ai Weiwei is one of the most famous Chinese artists working today, and is renowned for creating the “Birds Nest” Olympic stadium in Beijing, despite his lack of formal architectural training. Influenced by the likes of Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol as well as Duchamp, he also draws influence from his cultural roots and from current events. Travelling across the world, and living in two countries – China and The USA, Weiwei makes a political stand against his own government, in pieces such as “Remembering” (2008), a response to the earthquakes, as well as using antique furniture similar to those that were destroyed during the revolution, to make pieces of art.

Ai Weiwei grew up during the Cultural Revolution in 1950’s Beijing.  This was a time of violent protests and civil unrest in the People’s Republic of China, and centred on the infamous Chairman Mao. Mao was a communist and because of this there was “social, political, and economic upheaval; widespread persecution; and the destruction of antiques, historical sites, and culture.”[1] Weiwei’s father, a prominent poet, was denounced and exiled to a labour camp along with his wife. This was sparked by a poem called “Garden of Love” which was thought to oppose Mao’s views. Later joined by his young son Weiwei, it was here that a love of crafting and making objects was born.

The destruction of antiques lead Weiwei to use these materials in his works. Daily visiting local antiques markets, he made works such as “Grapes” (2008) (fig 1) using old stools fixed together, and similarly in “Template” (also 2008) (Fig 2) made from 1001 old wooden cupboard doors and windows “Salvaged” from destroyed homes from the Ming and Qing Dynasties.  He likes to take things of value to the Chinese people, whether for “Cultural reasons or simple practical reasons, and treats it with a flamboyant disregard for its value” [2] Weiwei himself says he “Reconstructs Classic furniture”, with an emphasis on using traditional methods of fixing them back together – no nails are used. Another piece, beautifully constructed of old bicycles (“Forever” 2003) gives a new meaning to an object – the Chinese are famed for their love of cycling and it is one of the main modes of transport used in Beijing itself. The fact that the basic structure of the sculpture is circular, could suggest the never-ending traditions of the Chinese people or how Weiwei perceives they are stuck in a “cycle” of dictators and political unrest in China. Said of his work in the “Imagine – 2010 Ai Weiwei; Without Fear or Favour” documentary, “Is this decorative art? Is this conceptual art? Is it kitsch? What is this?”[3] With his more controversial photographs “Dropping a Han Dynasty urn” (1995) (Fig 3) Weiwei was making yet more statements about his country and the people. The writer Philip Tinari said that “By dropping the urn in 1995, Ai Weiwei was essentially creating a senate, a tomb of a sort of Unknown Soldier, he was dropping one urn, to draw attention to the many others that were being destroyed around him every day.” [4]  In life, he had already witnessed the humiliation of his father, a role model, and seeing all these beautiful objects being destroyed, must make you think that if no one else wants them or they will break them up – I may as well do it for them. A life time of anger against what the Government did to his family, the brutal history he wanted to forget, to destroy maybe, all in the simple act of breaking an urn. “Breaking of a vessel, as if it embodies and contains history”[5]

An artist with direct reference to Weiwei is Richard Long, notably comparing “Mei Le” (2007) (Fig 4) to long’s “Red Slate Circle,” (1980). (Fig 5) Both pieces use similar materials – found from the natural environment – slate and stone. Both are arranged in a large, moderately flat circle on the floor of a gallery. Taken out of their natural outdoors location they are placed indoors in a gallery space. Both command attention, but also do not shout “Come look at me!!”- They have a certain grace and flow to them, consistent with Weiwei’s themes of beauty and grace which he also used to make his furniture pieces.  The significance of a circle is a universal symbol of “unity, wholeness, infinity, the goddess, female power, and the sun. To earth-centered religions throughout history as well as to many contemporary pagans, it represents the feminine spirit or force, the cosmos or a spiritualized Mother Earth, and a sacred space.” [6] A circle is a natural shape to create, something wholesome and continual, yet it is precise and often difficult to get exactly in proportion. It is a shape pleasing to the eye, with no harsh corners or edges. It is neutral. Perhaps Weiwei’s use of such a shape combined with the use of stone – primarily a building material, signifies a juxtaposition of these two ideas – the softness of the circle, with the harder more solid building material of stone – representing a nation of both identities; soft and graceful, yet still strong and resilient.

Weiwei is one of China most renowned contemporary conceptual artists. He has a great sense of the need for artists to make a stand and to help out their community. “Remembering” (2008)  (Fig6) was a piece created to commemorate the horrific earthquake which devastated the Chinese province of Sichuan. Amongst the many dead, were several thousand children, who died buried under the rubble of collapsed schools. There were theories circulating that the government had allowed the schools to be built in a botched fashion – owing to the fact that buildings surrounding the schools remained standing, a statement which the government rejected.  With the help of volunteers, Weiwei researched the names of those children who died – in complete disagreement with the Chinese government who did not officially publish any names or numbers of the dead, and actually threatened the parents if they gave Weiwei their child’s name. Weiwei was still able to publish over 4000 names on his blog, but not without consequences. As well as publishing the names of the children, he made the piece “Remembering” out of backpacks. This medium was used, as all that remained of the children in the rubble was these rucksacks, strewn amongst the wreckage. The backpacks were arranged on the facade of The Haus der Kunst in Germany, atop a metal structure. In five different colours, they spell out the phrase “She lived happily for seven years in this world” in Chinese characters, a phrase a mother used when talking about her lost daughter.  This sculpture serves as a memorial of those who died, but also as a reminder of the power of nature to take lives. One must ask though- Why not create this piece in China, where the tragedy took place? After Weiwei published the names of the victims on his blog, his account was de-activated by the government. This was not all. Police came to his apartment in China and beat him, and he was later hospitalised in Germany where he was exhibiting. He was operated on for cranial injuries he sustained “during a recent ‘altercation’ with the police in Sichuan”[7]

A recent piece of Weiwei’s, is his “Sunflower Seeds” (2010) (Fig 7) which is on exhibition at the Turbine Hall in Tate Modern. The piece is made up of exactly 100 million replica sunflower seeds, hand cast and painted by the people of Jingdezhen in the Jiangxi Province in South Beijing. This was the centre for Japanese porcelain, even the streetlights are made with ceramics. After the cultural revolution, in the 1990’s, the workshops were shut down, and the tradesmen left with no jobs or money. The sense of community was brought back when Weiwei had more than 1600 local artists make his seeds. Made in moulds using the compressed porcelain, they are then dried before sanding each one individually, then firing them at 300°, painted using four or five strokes, and then finally fired again. It is a lengthy and intricate process. Weiwei chose to use sunflower seeds, as during the revolution, people practically lived off them. “Growing up in a socialist society, the only pleasure we could get, is to have a pocket of sunflower seeds…We would start to talk, I would give you some…” [8] Peoples teeth even had little marks and cracks from eating them.

The seeds themselves are poignant, as with another reference to chairman Mao (Fig 8). Sunflowers are used in this poster to represent the Chinese people, looking up towards the Chairman. But like sunflowers, who do not choose to follow the sun, the people were forced to obey and look up to him and the government. He made 100 million seeds, as China has a history of mass production, but this is in contradiction to the process and amount of time spent making them – it took 2 and a half years to finish the project – and so there is an idea of individual mass production. Just because there are many of them, doesn’t make them any less valuable or of use – like the Chinese people themselves. The piece is meant as a physical interaction – viewers are encouraged to stand in the seeds, touch and feel them, even sit in them. (Fig 9) The ideas, Weiwei said, is open to personal interpretation. “Only when art connects to ordinary, feelings are ordinary, a common sense, they become more powerful.” (Ai Weiwei) This is true of this work in particular, as he invites ordinary people to come and see and experience the piece, and decide for themselves the meaning of it.

The artist Olafur Eliasson also was commissioned in 2003 (Fig 10) to create a piece for the Turbine Hall at Tate – entitled “The Weather Project”. The eighteenth-century writer Samuel Johnson famously remarked ‘It is commonly observed, that when two Englishmen meet, their first talk is of the weather; they are in haste to tell each other, what each must already know, that it is hot or cold, bright or cloudy, windy or calm.’[9] Eliasson’s piece uses this idea as a foundation to “Explore new ideas about experience, meditation and representation”[10]

“Representations of the sun and sky dominate the expanse of the Turbine Hall. A fine mist permeates the space, as if creeping in from the environment outside. Throughout the day, the mist accumulates into faint, cloud-like formations, before dissipating across the space. A glance overhead, to see where the mist might escape, reveals that the ceiling of the Turbine Hall has disappeared, replaced by a reflection of the space below. At the far end of the hall is a giant semi-circular form made up of hundreds of mono-frequency lamps. The arc repeated in the mirror overhead produces a sphere of dazzling radiance linking the real space with the reflection. Generally used in street lighting, mono-frequency lamps emit light at such a narrow frequency that colours other than yellow and black are invisible, thus transforming the visual field around the sun into a vast duotone landscape.”[11]

The installation was incredibly atmospheric and allowed people a place to sit and talk and visualise – similar to Weiwei’s pieces, it was interactive and encouraged people to be part of it. It occupied the space well but used a more technological approach to the work whereas Weiwei’s is natural and handmade.

 Weiwei has inspired many people; from young political activists to artists, and he “believes that taking a social and political stand is the moral responsibility of every artist.”[12] He has made many important and different pieces of work, too many to be named here, but all of them have some kind of political, social message; one of trying to make a better, more tolerant world. Be that by highlighting issues such as in “Remembering” or simply blogging his ideas and thoughts, Weiwei is truly an artist and a man who fights for artistic, even personal freedom.


(documentary about Ai Wei Wei ;  “Imagine 2010, Ai Weiwei ; Without Fear or Favour.” A BBC show which I watched)

 Due to Weiwei being a contemporary artist, it is difficult to find monographs on him, so I have mainly used the internet and documentaries to research him and his work.

Photo Gallery


(Fig 1)  Grapes (2008)

 (Fig 2) Template (2008) 

 (Fig 3) Dropping a Han Dynasty urn (1995)

 (Fig 4)  Ai Weiwei, Mei Le, (2007)

 (Fig 5)  Richard Long’s Red Slate Circle, (1980)

 (Fig 6)  “Remembering” (2008)

 (Fig 7) The Chinese people of Jingdezhen in the Jiangxi Province in South Beijing making the sun flower seeds.

 (Fig 8) Poster of Chairman Mao

 (Fig 9) (2010) The seeds installed in The Turbine Hall at Tate Modern.

(Fig ten) Olafur Eliasson’s “The Weather Project” 2003 Turbine hall instillation

One Comment leave one →
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