On the 3rd of April 2011, the inhabitants of Chaoyang district in northern Beijing woke up to a strange spectacle. A team of twenty policemen, dressed in plainclothes but armed to the teeth, were placing cordons around an empty building. Power to the neighbourhood had been cut off. In breathless darkness, the residents watched as officers advanced through the doorway, returning minutes later with laptops and a hard drive. Miles away in the Beijing Capital Airport, the building’s owner—a towering, shaggy-haired man in his fifties—was being forced, handcuffed, into the back of a squad car.
It looked like a scene straight out of a movie. Indeed, over the following days as news of the arrest broke across China, headlines would try to paint it in the cinematic colours of a nationalist propaganda film: the police triumphant, the public enemy detained, the state saved once again from the threat of sinister treason. But the deserted building in Chaoyang was no criminal lair—it was an art studio. And the man arrested at the airport, far from being a hardened felon, was Ai Weiwei: filmmaker, visual artist, and one of the most outspoken political dissidents in China.
To understand Ai’s history, it is vital to understand his childhood. He was born in 1957, one of a generation of children growing up amidst the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution. His father, the writer Gao Ying, had been imprisoned by the Nationalist government for Leftist activism. Now that Mao’s Communist Party had taken power, Gao—in a twist of events that even among the extreme politics of the time seemed cruelly ironic—was accused of being a Rightist and exiled to a labour camp in distant Xinjiang. It was here, amongst a community of outcasts, pariahs and political prisoners, that Ai grew up.
When his father was finally released, Ai attended the Beijing Film Academy and became one of the first members of ‘The Stars’, a group of rebel artists who wanted to reintroduce art as a method of self-expression instead of a tool of the state. In 1981 he moved to New York, where he led an impressively eclectic life: dropping out of Parsons after six months, rubbing shoulders with names like Warhol and Ginsberg, and becoming so adept at blackjack that he was chauffeured to casinos in a stretch limo each week. His first solo show, ‘Old Shoes, Safe Sex’, was shown in New York in 1988.
Five years later, Ai returned to Beijing. The Cultural Revolution had ended, but Ai’s continuing defiance of Party rule showed clearly in his artwork. A photo series published in the early 90s depicts him leaping across the frame, naked and contorted into ridiculous poses. Ai titled it “grass mud horse covering the middle”—a name which in spoken Mandarin sounds like a slur about mothers and the Communist Party. His later work is even more scathing: his most celebrated pieces include surveillance cameras wrought from marble, Han Dynasty vases defaced with Coke logos, and a series of porcelain shards bearing the words “free speech” which piece together to form a fractured map of China.
Ai is famous for his eccentricity. In the face of a puritanically conformist society, his art showcases a bold, transgressive individualism: his 1999 exhibition in Shanghai, for instance, was simply titled “F**k off”. Ai’s larger-than-life personality and fiercely anti-government works have earned him a global cult following. His Twitter account has 375,000 followers—impressive, considering Twitter is technically blocked in China—and his studio, Fake Culture Development Ltd, became a local landmark before it was shut down. In 2011, following his arrest, ArtReview named him “the most powerful artist in the world.”
The official reason given for his arrest was tax evasion, but it ignited such a media firestorm that Ai was released just three months later. Since then, he has fled to Cambridge, UK, where he now lives with his family. Over the last three decades, he has made global headlines, become a national fugitive, and even had his life adapted into a play at the Hampstead Theatre. Ai, however, still seems surprised by his own fame. “The secret police told me,” he said to Smithsonian, “everybody can see it but you, that you’re so influential.”
Ai’s career has been both prolific and diverse. It has taken him from laying bricks in Xinjiang to opening galleries in Europe, from casinos to prisons to political exile. His most recent creations include an exhibition on surveillance, a documentary about the refugee crisis, and an installation of repurposed explosive devices due to be displayed at the Imperial War Museum. Whatever he makes next—sculpture or video, photograph series or performance art—we can be sure that it will ignite the popular imagination for years afterwards.