Ai Weiwei, Abridged: A Chronological Look at the Artist and his Iconic Works

This fall, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei will host 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.

1978: 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, Wang Keping, 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 Jingdezhen, China.

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 Galleria Continua.

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 families.

2014: 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.

Newlin Tillotson