This fall, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei
his most recent installation @Large in the notorious former penitentiary,
Alcatraz Island, off the coast of San Francisco. While Ai remains in China
under house arrest, he translates his experiences with freedom of speech and
human rights into a space once designated for incarceration. To help
familiarize you with Ai’s turbulent and creative past, we’ve rounded up several
of the iconic works and notable events that have helped shape the career of
this legendary artist.
August 28, 1957: Ai Weiwei is born in Beijing,
China to Chinese poet Ai Qing. At one year old, Ai Weiwei and his family are
sent to a labor camp in Beidahuang, Heilongjiang. In 1961, they are exiled to
Shihezi, Xinjiang, where they lived until the death of Mao Zedong and the end
of the Cultural Revolution.
: Ai enrolls in the Beijing Film Academy and studies animation. He
starts the avant-garde group “Stars” together with Zhong Acheng, Li Shuang
, Huang Rui
, Qu Leilei,
, and Ma Desheng.
1981-1993: Ai moves to the U.S. He studies briefly at
Parsons School of Design. After dropping out of school, to make ends meet, he
works odd jobs and draws portraits for tourists on the streets of New York.
During this time he befriends poet Allen Ginsberg. While living in the East
Village, Ai begins carrying a camera around with him to photograph the neighborhood
and surrounding areas of the city. The resulting photos come to form his
series, “New York photographs from 1983-1993.”
1993-1995: Ai returns to China after his father becomes
ill. After his return he further develops performance art and sculptures. These
works include repainting a traditional urn, Han Jar Overpainted with
Coca-Cola Logo, 1995, and a performance in which he drops and shatters a
Han dynasty urn, pictured in First panel of the triptych Dropping a Han
Dynasty Urn, 1995.
1999-2003: The artist moves to Caochangdi, in the
northeast of Beijing, and builds a studio. In 2000, he co-curates the art
exhibition “Fuck Off” with curator Feng Boyi in Shanghai, China, and in 2003,
he founds the architecture studio FAKE design.
2005-2009: Ai takes his criticism of government policy
more public beginning with his blog with Sina Weibo, an internet platform in
China. When the site is shut down in 2008, Ai turns to Twitter, where he has
continued to write since.
In 2009, Ai is taken into custody by police, and is placed under
house arrest in 2010. He later says this was prompted by a disagreement with
officials over his newly built Shanghai studio.
2010-2011: Ai’s installation, Sunflower Seeds, takes
over the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern, filling the space with millions of
hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds made by specialists in workshops in
2011: Ai is arrested in April at Beijing Capital International
Airport, just before his flight to Hong Kong. He is released from jail on
charges of tax evasion in June but forbidden to leave China. His detainment is
largely criticized as an act of censorship by the Chinese government.
Ai’s Forever Bicycle sculpture, re-purposing more than
3,000 bicycles made from the popular Chinese bike company, Forever, debuts at
the Taipei Fine Arts Museum in 2011. Bicycles are a recurring object in his
installations and were also featured in “Stacked,” which was first presented at
2013: Ai unveils his installation Bang, created from 886 wooden
antique stools at the 2013 Venice Biennale. The stools are a common piece of
furniture in historical Chinese culture and were often passed down through
: Ai’s retrospective “Ai Weiwei:
According to What?
,” detailing more than 20 years of his work,
opens at the Brooklyn Museum. The exhibition, which was organized by Tokyo’s
Mori Art Museum—and debuted there as a smaller show in 2009—features over 40 of
his works and shows his range of disciplines, including photography, sculpture,
and architecture, along with the platforms he uses for activism.
September 2014–April 2015: @Large, Ai’s installation on
Alcatraz Island, opens to the public. It explores ideas in human rights and
freedom of expression, recontextualizing the former military fortress,
notorious penitentiary, and site of Native American history.