Ai Weiwei is a Chinese contemporary artist, active in sculpture, installation, architecture, curating, photography, film, and social, political and cultural criticism.
Ai Weiwei has always been a political artist. His political activism has its roots in a turbulent childhood. Born in Beijing, Ai grew up in an artistic family. His father, Ai Qing, was one of China's most important poets. Yet shortly after Ai's birth, the communist government under Mao Zedong accused his father of supporting capitalism, and the entire family was exiled to a labor camp in Manchuria. Ai's childhood experiences in the camp helped ignite in him a desire for political change.
During Weiwei's student days, the Chinese economy began incorporating some of the very capitalist ideas for which Ai Qing was denounced. China also began relaxing the cultural restrictions imposed on its people under Mao. Ai was among the first generation of Chinese artists to take advantage of this increased openness. While studying at the Beijing Film Academy in the late seventies, he became part of a group called the "Stars." This group rejected the typical Chinese art of the day, with its bland realism and scenes of obedient socialist workers. Instead, the Stars made art that incorporated Cubism, Surrealism, and other Western styles that had been banned in China. They first exhibited their works in 1979, putting together a makeshift outdoor exhibition in Beijing and openly pushing for greater cultural freedom in their country. One of Ai's artworks from this year, a black-and- white drawing called Forest, depicts a dark forest scene using expressionist techniques.
When China began relaxing the travel restrictions it had imposed on its citizens under Mao. Ai was able to move to New York City in the early eighties and lived there for more than a decade. While in New York, he continued his studies and refocused his artistic career. Ai began experimenting with conceptual art that tackled social and political issues more directly. When he returned to China in 1993, he brought what he had learned back with him. Ai often explored the awkward blending of capital¬ism, communism, and traditional culture in China.
Ai collaborated with Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron as the artistic consultant on the Beijing National Stadium for the 2008 Olympics. As a political activist, he has been highly and openly critical of the Chinese Government's stance on democracy and human rights. He has investigated government corruption and cover-ups, in particular the Sichuan schools corruption scandal following the collapse of so-called "tofu-dreg schools" in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. In 2011, following his arrest at Beijing Capital International Airport on 3 April, he was held for 81 days without any official charges being filed; officials alluded to their allegations of "economic crimes".