From China Digital Space
A Profile of Ai Weiwei
Written by C. Schultz
If to express oneself one needs a reason, let me say that to express oneself is the reason.
(Ai Weiwei's first post on his Sina.com blog, Nov. 19, 2005)
A Study In Perspective
(Ai Weiwei's second post:)
Ai Weiwei is a conceptual artist, photographer, curator, architectural designer and a prolific blogger. He was born in Beijing in 1957; in 1958, his father, the poet Ai Qing, was declared a rightist by the government and sentenced to "reeducation through labour." The entire family was sent to Xinjiang province, and it was here that Ai Weiwei was raised in a labour camp. During an interview at the Berkeley Art Museum (BAM) in 2008, the artist recalled being forced to burn his father's books before the Red Guards came to punish the family with having such material. During his reform, Ai Qing was forced to work as a hand labourer, cleaning public toilets. This early experience formed the young Ai Weiwei:
- “I grew up in a Communist society and amid ideological struggles. The system devolved into extreme totalitarianism with no personal rights, no freedom of speech or expression. Justice was replaced by class struggle, which is really just an excuse for the government to maintain its power. From a very early age, I found it almost impossible, in those conditions, for individuals to develop self-consciousness or any real awareness of aesthetic values. Instead, there was a severe conflict between individual and state power. These struggles pervaded the environment in which I grew up. And still, after 30 years of so-called "opening and reform," we have a reduced version of the same state. Today, we are still under a one-party system with very limited space for freedom of expression. “ (Vine, p. 99)
Ai Qing was later forgiven for his "crimes" and was finally able to publish his writing in 1979.
As a young adult, Ai Weiwei studied film with the Fifth Generation of filmmakers at the Beijing Film Academy. He was involved with the art group "Stars" and the literature group "Today", members of which were later repressed by the government. He left for the U.S. in 1981, and studied in Pennsylvania, Berkeley, and the Parsons School of Design in New York. He lived in the U.S. until 1993, then returned to China to care for his ill father. In 1994, he published the "Black Cover Book," a publication dealing with modern art and ideas, with the curator Feng Boyi. Authorities were threatened by the publication, and forced Feng to resign. Ai Weiwei continued publishing, releasing the "White Cover Book" in 1995 and the "Grey Cover Book" in 1997. Ai founded the "China Art Archives and Warehouse" in Beijing to support modern Chinese art and artists. He co-founded the Modern Chinese Art Foundation in 2007 and, in 2008, received a lifetime achievement award at the Chinese Contemporary Art Awards. He is married to artist Lu Qing and lives in Beijing.
Ai Weiwei on Blogging:
“To use art is not enough, to describe your view, in the old traditional forms, such as painting, sculpture… as a citizen you need to express your views, writing, blogging, giving interviews, is a part of that, otherwise you will very easily be misinterpreted, or misunderstood, by the society, by the establishment I should say. “(Shanghai Eye)
Ai Weiwei is the author of five separate blogs:
- Blog on Sina.com (http://blog.sina.com.cn/aiweiwei) Started November 19, 2005. To May 2009, he had created approximately 2,400 blog posts. His blog consisted of images of his artwork, photography, and documentation of his art performances, his thoughts and comments on news and art, interviews, and photos of his friends. According to Art in America (v. 95, n.8), his blog was read by 10,000 people every day. The blog was shut down on May 28, 2009.
- Blog on Sohu.com (http://sohuaiweiwei.blog.sohu.com/) Started November 20, 2007. To May 2009, he had written approximately 800 blog posts. This blog was also deleted May 28, 2009.
- Blog on Bullog.com (Closed pre-2009.)
- Blog on Bulloger.com (http://www.bullogger.com/blogs/aiww/) Started December 1, 2005.
- Blog on his own site, AiWeiwei.com (http://blog.aiweiwei.com/) Started May 1, 2009.
Ai quickly adopted the blogging medium (and later the Twitter medium), becoming prolific blogger with growing popularity in China and abroad. Although some of his blogs ran concurrently, they were not identical to one another but sometimes contained the same posts and other cross-over material.
- "I do my blog because this is the only possible channel through which a person can express a personal opinion in China. No newspaper, magazine or television channel would ever present your argument or ideas. I am the most interviewed person in China, even domestically, and yet even if I say something it cannot be published here: so I am talking to myself – it is ridiculous. So I felt that a blog might be a good way to create one forum in which to open one’s mind. Yet every time I sit to write I still hesitate: should I do it? What will the consequences be? I retain a simple premise in mind: my blog is an extension of my thinking – why should I deform my thinking simply because I live under a government that espouses an ideology which I believe to be totally against humanity? And this so-called communist ideology is totally against humanity. Many generations of people over decades in this nation have been hurt by this: many are dead, many have disappeared and many have been damaged, whether conscious of this reality or not. So my position is not just one person’s strange idea – these are our lives and we live in this part of the world. People in London are not going to take a position – they have other concerns. So for me this is not a ‘responsibility’: it is part of life. If you live in self-punishment or self-imposed ignorance or lack of self-awareness it genuinely diminishes your existence. Self-censorship is insulting to the self. Timidity is a hopeless way forward." (Kirby, p. 23)
After the devastating earthquake in Sichuan Province in May 2008, Ai was troubled by the nationalistic sentiments and pride expressed online and in the media. To reference Jeff Kelly, “The nation’s pride in coming to its own rescue was the subtext of every story.” (Kelly, p. 107). Ai decided to travel to Sichuan and document the disaster area with his camera. Thus began “The Numbers Project”, an effort involving numbers of volunteers to assemble the names of the children who died during the earthquake, a subject with much national sympathy. Each of his blog posts were decorated with photographs of a single burning candle, in memory of the earthquake’s victims. Also on his blog, Ai has been publishing transcripts of his volunteers’ struggles to assemble the list of the dead, a task that has been fraught with bureaucratic red tape as well as threats, imprisonment and even physical abuse from local governments and police. His purpose is not only to record the victim’s lives for posterity, but has a political element as well: "I want the government to say: `Yes, those buildings were wrongly built – and we won't do it again. I don't care if they punish a few construction people or a few corrupt officials... That's not what I'm interested in. I want a government and a nation that bears responsibility. Without responsibility this nation goes nowhere." (Schiller) During his public interview with Jeff Kelly at BAM September 30, 2008, Ai Weiwei stated that he refused to cooperate with government authorities, declaring "I want to show them what arrogance is. Arrogance is not associating with the common value system. And I want to remind them what it is."
On May 28, 2009, days before the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, his Sina and Sohu blogs were shut down, and the blog content was lost. This was his last post:
- I’m ready. That is to say, I have nothing to prepare. As an individual — this is my all. Other people might be able to take it; I can offer it up. At the time of need, I will not hesitate, I will not be unclear.
If there’s anything I’m reluctant to leave, it’s the miracles that life has brought. The miracles are that we’re all the same, the game that everyone is equal, and the fantasies and freedoms that follow. From whatever right and from whatever kind of threat, I view these as menaces to people’s dignity and rationality, as menaces to life’s potential. I want to learn how to face them. Rest assured, I learn rather quickly; I won’t let you down. Those rights of those children who lost their lives not long ago, their group has perished. They helped me to understand the significance of an individual life and society...
- That day will likely arrive. These two days, I’ve been a little busy. I’ve had to bring myself to the Public Securities Bureau (PSB); there was another misunderstanding...Two days ago, I called 110 China's emergency number to make a report to send an officer without ID to the PSB. Today, I called 110 again 3 times to send two plainsclothed officers who had been tracking me to the PSB... What I must clarify is that I am an individual, I must protect my rights, and no one can force me.
- I can tolerate the deletion of my blog, the phonetapping, and the surveillance of my residence.
- But you barged into my home, and threatened me in front of my 76-year-old mother, I could no longer stand it. With plainsclothed officers on my tail, threatening my life’s safety, I could no longer stand it. You don’t understand human rights, so how much do you know the constitution? You need to hear this clearly:
- 1. All that is under heaven and earth is yours. You must do things in a just and honorable way.
- 2. In law enforcement, you must keep to the law, you must bring police ID. In these two days, 5 officers did not had ID, 2 posed as “civilians.” Before you find another profession, respect this one....: : (Hartono)
Although his Sina and Sohu sites were canceled, he continued blogging on his Aiweiwei.com site, as well as his Twitter and Fanfou sites. On June 4th, he posted the following message:
- Let us forget about June 4th, forget this ordinary day. Life has taught us, under totalitarianism, every day is the same. Every day in a totalitarian society is one day, there is no ‘other day’, no ‘yesterday’ or ‘tomorrow’. We no longer need partial truth, we don’t need partial justice or partial fairness.
- Without freedom of speech, without freedom of news, without freedom of elections, we are not people, we do not need to remember. Lacking the right to remember, we choose to forget.
- Let us forget every instance of persecution, every instance of humiliation; every massacre and every cover-up, every lie, every time we are pushed down, every death. Forget every moment of suffering, then forget every moment of forgetting. This is all just so that they, like ‘men of honor’, might ridicule us.
- Forget those soldiers who fired on civilians, those students whose bodies were crushed by the treads of tanks, the whistle and scream of bullets and blood on big streets and in the alleyways; a city and a Square without tears. Forget the interminable lies, the rulers hoping everyone has forgotten, forget their coward[ice], their evil and ineptitude. We must forget, for they must be forgotten. Only when they’ve been forgotten can we exist. For the sake of existing, let us forget. (Custer, "Ai Weiwei: Let Us Forget")
Several days later, he posted pictures of him nude, accept for a stuffed toy of the "Grass Mud Horse", symbol of resistance to internet censors, covering his genitals.
In an article on ChinaGeeks, the writer translated comments left on Ai Weiwei's blog and comments left on the Anti-CNN post regarding Ai's writings and actions. The comments left on Ai's blog were (naturally) encouraging and supportive; the comments left on the Anti-CNN site were much more critical of him. Comments included: "The essence of Western education and the sorrow of the Chinese people. If you’ve lost the Chinese national spirit, are you still a person?", "Anti-Party anti-China, loving the UK and worshipping America, betraying the people’s position”! Traitor! Running dog! Cruel and evil", and "That Chinese society can accommodate a person such as this proves our society has already improved. Those of you perverts flaunting how “correct” and “red” you are, do you want China to return to the days when people were punished for things they said?" (Custer, "Netizen Thoughts on Ai Weiwei")
Although Ai Weiwei is a political blogger, not all of his posts are serious. Some contain photos of his cats, others of his friends, and his musings on life. On June 18, 2009, in response to discovery that Lu Jun, the Vice Director of the Urban City Planning Bureau in the city Zhengzhou, had PhotoShopped his face onto that of a portrait of President Hu Jintao to use for this biography ID on Zhengzhou's government website, Ai Weiwei posted on his blog his own PhotoShopped efforts.
Ai Weiwei on Politics
Ai Weiwei is a very politically-involved blogger, a member of China's "elite caste" who, due to their power and reputation at home and abroad, are able to express and publicize beliefs and opinions that are not as easily censored or punished by authorities as those of "regular" people. Ai is outspoken and direct, such criticisms including:
- Totalitarian society creates a huge space that, as we know, is a wasteland. The great success of this system is that it makes the general public afraid of taking responsibility; afraid of taking a position or giving a definite answer; or even of making mistakes. There is no revolution like the communist revolution. You simply burn all the books, kill all of the thinking people and use the poor proletariat to create a very simple benchmark to gauge social change. This has continued for generations – after just two or three generations deprived of continuity in education we inevitably become completely cut off from our own past. (Kirby, p. 25)
- “So many crimes have been done to humanity and were never really publicly revealed-a lack of awareness, a tack of individual responsibility. And it's still the same system, the same party there. Even if it looks like it has broken, there are still some major facts that need to be cleared up. Without doing that, we can't be a democratic society, can't be a liberal-thinking society, and there's no true freedom of speech… I've said this in as many public forums as possible, but of course they will not publish it. So I put it in my personal blog, but there is danger in that also. People always warn me, telling me that I've touched on some areas you should never touch, that I'm the only person doing that. So many people today, they avoid it." (Thea, p. 29)
Ai Weiwei's Art Projects:
- “The act of changing the understanding and perspective of an object, or reworking an established concept, disrupts its stability and makes it questionable. To have other layers of color and images above the previous once calls into question both the identity and authenticity of the object. It makes both conditions non-absolute: you cover something so that it is no longer visible but is still there underneath, and what appears on the surface is not supposed to be there but is there.” (Meile, p. 10)
Ai Weiwei works in a wide variety of media, including sculpture, photography, architectural design and performance. His website http://www.aiweiwei.com/ showcases some of his earlier works. Such pieces include:
- Painting “Coca Cola” on a Neolithic vase, dipping other Neolithic vases in house paint.
- Sculpture “Ton of Tea” is composed of a one cube ton of compressed tea.
- Creating sculptures and a map of China out of wood from destroyed Qing dynasty temples.
- Sculptures out of porcelain, including stylized porcelain waves, columns, clothes, flowers.
- In 2000, Ai Weiwei staged a protest exhibition during the Shanghai Biennale titled "Fuck Off" which contained "controversial" works. It was later closed by Shanghai police.
- Several video projects, recording Beijing: Beijing: Chang’an Boulevard (2004), Beijing: The Second Ring (2005), Beijing: The Third Ring (2005) and the earlier 153-hour long INTERVAL – From DaBeiYao to DaBeiYao, 8.10-7.11.2003 (2003)
- His submission for Documenta 12 in 2007 was an installation entitled "Fairytale." For this, he transported 1,001 people from China to the site of Documenta, the small German town of Kassell. Volunteers applied for the opportunity via Ai's blog. His other pieces at Documenta 12 included 1,001 Qing dynasty chairs and the sculpture "Template," constructed of Qing-era doors and windows from houses razed for development in Shanxi.
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- One of hist largest projects was the design of the "Birds Nest" in Beijing. The Swiss architectural firm, Herzon & De Meuron, had won the international competition to build the Beijing National Stadium (commonly referred to as the Birds Nest,) and Ai Weiwei became the artistic consultant. When the one year countdown to the opening of the games was held, Ai became upset with how the event and the structure were becoming part of state propaganda, declaring "an Olympics held without freedom and against the will of the people will … be nonsense because no totalitarian regime can play at being a democracy. It is a pretend harmony and happiness." (Toy)
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- In January 2009, Ai Weiwei auctioned off a bag of Sanlu Milk Powder as a artistic/political statement, in reference to the poisoned food product laced with melamine that had been sickening and killing babies throughout the country. The piece was sold at auction for 1600 Yuan
- On Feb. 2, 2009, a German student threw a shoe at Wen Jiabao during his presentation at Cambridge University, inciting an angry-youth backlash on the Chinese internet. In response, Ai Weiwei threw his shoe at the Parliament buildings during a visit to London: “I was on the way to the airport, my flight was at 4:35. We were passing, and I saw so many people taking photos in one direction, the driver said it was the Parliament. So we stopped and I asked them to take a photo of me. I took off my shoe and threw it three times. The police were fine, they didn’t care. They were like who cares what this fucking guy is doing here… I thought this student who threw his shoe at Wen Jiabao was so brave, and they made such a big fuss in China, all those patriotic youth in China said how can this guy do this, but you know it’s very normal, Wen Jiabao is a political leader. Our political leaders hold a position where they should be criticized.”
- Ai Weiwei is one of the project organizers of “Ordos100”, the project to build the new city of Kangbashi in the Ordos Basin of Inner Mongolia, in which one hundred houses will be designed and by artists from around the world.
- In May of 2009, the Danish secretariat selected Ai to design a substitute installation to replace Denmark’s famous mermaid statue while it is on exhibit at the World Expo in Shanghai in 2010.
- On June 29, 2009, Ai Weiwei announced a new competition on his blog, called "10.1 - Middle Finger". To enter the competition, participants must take photographs of themselves extending their middle finger (in a blatant, non-concealed "fuck off" gesture). They must include their personal details (name, gender, age, occupation, phone number) and a short description why and where the photo was taken. Submissions will be received from July 1 to October 1, 2009. Submissions will be judged October 10 and the results will be released October 30. The winning prize will be 10,000 RMB (approximately $1,500 USD) and the runner-up prize will be 1,000 RMB (approximately $150 USD).
- On July 1st, 2009, Ai Weiwei organized a party to boycott the government's launch of the Green Dam software, intended to function as a boycott on Green Dam's first day of release. The party turned into one of celebration after the government indefinitely postponed the software's release:
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Read more about Ai Weiwei on CDT.
Follow Ai Weiwei on Twitter. (As of August 1, 2009)
Ai Weiwei. Interview by Jeff Kelly, Sept. 30, 2008. Transcribed by Corey Schultz.
“Ai Weiwei Interview.” Shanghai Eye, http://www.shanghaieye.net/english/2009/05/ai-weiwei-interview
Bernstein, Fred A. “In Inner Mongolia, Pushing Architecture’s Outer Limits.” New York Times, May 1, 2008, 
“China’s Ai Weiwei to Design Mermaid Substitute.” KSL News Radio, May 5, 2009, 
Coggins, David. “Ai Weiwei’s Humane Conceptualism.” Art in America, 95, no. 8 (Summer 2007): 118-125.
Colonnello, Nataline. “An Interview with Ai Weiwei.” Artzine: A Chinese Contemporary Art Portal, August 10, 2007, 
Cooke, Rachel. “Cultural Revolutionary.” The Observer, July 6, 2008, 
Custer, C. "Ai Weiwei: Let Us Forget." ChinaGeeks, June 3, 2009, 
Custer, C. "Netizen Thoughts on Ai Weiwei." ChinaGeeks, June 18, 2009, 
Danzker, Jo-Anne Birnie. “A Conversation with Ai Weiwei.” Yishu, vol. 7, no. 4 (July 2008): 10-19.
Hartono, Paulina. "Ai Weiwei's Blog Closed." China Digital Times, May 28, 2009, 
Jasper, Adam. “Critical Mass: Ai Weiwei.” ArtReview, no.22 (May 2008): 52-63.
Kelly, Jeff. “Jeff Kelly on Ai Weiwei.” Artforum 47, no. 1 (Sept. 2008): 107-108.
Kirby, Simon. "Truth to Power." Index on Censorship, December 23, 2008, 
MacKinnon, Rebecca. "Ai Weiwei: On taking individual responsibility." RConversation, 
Meile, Urs, ed. Ai Weiwei: Works 2004-2007. Beijing: Galerie Urs Meile, 2007.
Mu Qian. "Once Upon a Time." China Daily, May 29, 2007 
Schiller, Bill. “Chinese Activist Seeks Earthquake Truth.” Toronto Star, April 3, 2009, 
Thea, Carolee. “Making Everything: A Conservation With Ai Weiwei.” Sculpture 27, no.10 (December 2008): 24-29.
Toy, Mary Anne. “The Artist as an Angry Man.” The Age, January 19, 2008, 
Vine, Richard. “The Way We Were, the Way We Are: An Interview with Ai Weiwei.” Art In America, 96, no. 6 (June/July 2008): 99-101.