Today Ai Weiwei enjoys a reputation far beyond the art world. While his social, performance-based interventions and appropriated object-based artworks have secured his place as one of the world’s leading conceptual artists, Ai is equally known as a social media phenomenon, a political activist, and an outspoken champion of free expression in his native China, where he earned an 81-day police detention in 2011.
Ai Weiwei’s art negotiates between history and the contemporary moment; between traditional Chinese culture and Western cultural imperialism. His 1994 artwork Coca Cola Vase - a Han Dynasty era style vessel with the international label emblazoned across it - is indicative of his observations of the world. More recently Ai’s work has directly criticized the Chinese government for its human rights abuses. His large installation Straight re-used debris from the 2008 Sichuan earthquakes and his film project So Sorry, investigated the government, whose corruption and poor housing construction contributed towards the high casualties. Ai’s solidarity with the dispossessed and disenfranchised extends outside of his homeland too. He participated in the Fukushima art project, Don’t Follow The Wind, creating a work set inside the nuclear exclusion zone. Such solidarity has resulted in an Amnesty International Ambassador of Conscience Award.
The rich tapestry of Ai Weiwei’s life and artwork is documented in TASCHEN books, including a recent comprehensive monograph. Ai is also known for his work in architecture and was the artistic consultant on Herzog & de Meuron’s Beijing National Stadium, known as the Bird’s Nest. In 2012 he teamed up again with the Swiss architects to create the Serpentine Pavilion. Ai Weiwei’s most famous work saw him fill the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall with millions of porcelain sunflower seeds hand crafted by Chinese artisans. Bringing together his interest in the readymade and his political inclinations, Sunflower Seeds demonstrates the Chinese artist’s effortlessly simple yet powerful work.