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Ai Weiwei

April 7, 2011

A suppressed dissident in China, an admired artist in Europe: Ai Weiwei is celebrated in Europe for the same works that create problems for him at home. The artist's recent arrest has provoked outrage abroad.

Ai Weiwei in his studio
Artist and activist Ai Weiwei also works in architecture, film and art curationImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Ai Weiwei's avant-garde, often political art has earned him acclaim in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, beginning with his 2007 appearance at the documenta 12 art fair in Kassel. At the time, he was largely unknown, but the unusual projects he exhibited have kept people talking ever since.

"Template" by Ai Weiwei
The work "Template" collapsed while displayed at documenta 12 in 2007Image: picture-alliance/dpa

For "Fairytale," one of his notable pieces at documenta 12, he flew 1,001 Chinese citizens to Kassel to mill about and experience the town for three months. In a work called "Template," he built a tower from old doors that was later destroyed in a storm - much to the artist's delight. He said the damage led him to like the work even more.

Since his debut at documenta 12, Ai Weiwei has had a sensational career that astonishes even the artist himself from time to time. His most recent arrest on April 3 has put at least a temporary halt to his activities. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle responded with an appeal to the Chinese government to release Ai Weiwei.

Symbol of Chinese resistance

The content of the Chinese artist's work has repeatedly drawn the attention of authorities at home, but it's Ai Weiwei's method of presentation that stands out to Roger Buergel, artistic director of documenta 12.

"Ai Weiwei's art is very accessible," said Buergel. "It has a highly sensual and perceptual quality by combining older and contemporary forms."

China's rise as an economic power and increasing interest in the country and its people have also contributed to the artist's international renown. Ai Weiwei has become a sort of symbol for resistance to oppression in China. He has had numerous dealings with the police, has been arrested and abused - but he continues his work.

"He loves his country and its culture," explained Buergel, who described Ai Weiwei as a fighter for his country with a zest for life and a keen sense of beauty.

Chinese authorities have gone to lengths to silence the artist as a public figure, but Ai Weiwei still finds ways to express his ideas, including in blogs and other online forums.

Straddling continents

The media often look to Ai Weiwei for statements when it comes to reports on China. The artist lived from 1981 to 1993 in New York and has a knack for intercultural communicating, having also mastered the vocabulary of conceptual art in the West. But China remains the centerpiece of his work.

A work by Ai Weiwei with ancient vases covered in cheap paint
At So Sorry in 2009, Ai Weiwei exhibited ancient Chinese vases covered in cheap paintImage: DW

"He doesn't see himself primarily as a creator of objects," according to Buergel, who sees Ai Weiwei rather as someone who uses his conceptual intelligence and sensibilities to affect political developments.

The significant following that has built up around Ai Weiwei has at least one simple explanation, Buergel continued: "People like guys who embody a certain integrity."

Ai Weiwei's efforts to get to the bottom of the situation in Sichuan following an earthquake in 2008 encapsulate the artist's integrity to many. In the earthquake, thousands of children were left buried under rubble from their schools. After becoming suspicious about sloppy construction and design at the schools, Ai Weiwei began researching the names of the children.

Following those events, he was attacked by Chinese police and severely beaten in August 2009. The attacks took place ahead of a solo exhibition of Ai Weiwei's work in Germany, titled "So Sorry." Thousands of people attended the show in a Munich gallery.

Ai Weiwei in Berlin

Art collector Uli Sigg proposed inviting Ai Weiwei to Kassel for documenta 12 and is credited with helping acquaint European audiences with his work. The two men have known each other since 1995 and remain close friends.

Ai Weiwei in a hospital bed
Ai Weiwei was operated on in Germany after being attacked by police in ChinaImage: picture alliance/dpa

Earlier in his career, Ai Weiwei wasn't nearly as political as he is now, Sigg said, adding that his major role as an activist is a development from recent years.

The collector recently returned from Hong Kong, where he was unable to go through with plans to meet with Ai Weiwei due to the recent arrest.

Sigg and Ai Weiwei are working on an exhibition slated for May in Lucerne, Switzerland. Ahead of that, the artist had planned to open a separate show in Berlin at the end of April. He had recently announced plans to open a studio in the German capital.

Preparations are still underway for the Berlin exhibition, confirmed the host gallery, neugerriemschneider. But when it comes to the star of opening night, organizers can only hope that Ai Weiwei will be able to leave China by then.

For one of the gallery's owners, Tim Neuger, Ai Weiwei is more than an artist who is "driving contemporary art forward." He is also "one of the most significant rallying forces in his home country's fight for freedom," Neuger said.

Author: Petra Lambeck / gsw
Editor: Kate Bowen