Thursday marks the three-year anniversary of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei's arrest by Chinese authorities. He was detained for 81 days.
Now, still facing accusations that he owes the government millions of dollars in taxes and not allowed to leave China, Ai continues his art-activism, with an exhibition opening in Berlin and a film project to be funded by Kickstarter.
Regarded as the most famous living Chinese artist and oft-compared to Andy Warhol in his pop art sensitivities and ability to grab headlines, Ai has been a thorn in China’s side for years due to his criticisms of the Communist government.
His work being showcased at Berlin’s Martin-Gropius-Bau museum, which was put together with the help of his assistants in his absence, continues on the themes of government dissent that have made him well known outside the art community and include a replica of the jail cell in which he was detained in 2011. Meanwhile, the film, called “Sand Storm,” is a 10-minute sci-fi thriller set in an a dystopian future, starring Ai (who also was the focus of the 2011 documentary “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry”) and filmed in secret in Beijing.
Ai, who is 56 years old, captured the world’s attention when he helped designed the arena known as the Bird’s Nest for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, only to boycott the Opening Ceremony. He has been particularly critical of the Chinese government’s response to the Sichuan earthquake in 2008 in which hundreds of children died under the rubble of shoddily built schools, while government buildings nearby withstood the tremors.
The son of an intellectual exiled to a labor camp by China’s Cultural Revolution, Ai left China for the U.S when he was 24, only to return to China in 1993 to tend to his dying father. While in the U.S., he was introduced to the American modern art movement and became active in the New York art scene, inspiring an oeuvre that is widely varied,often featuring a sense of humor.
His works include numerous buildings and installations, both in China and abroad, as well as pieces that riff on Chinese craftwork – often refashioning or even destroying antiques like the ancient urns he dipped in colorful paint. Some of his most famous exhibitions include filling a hall of London’s Tate Modern with sunflower seeds, covering the exterior of a Munich art museum with 9,000 children's backpacks in tribute to the Sichuan victims, and a sculpture series of 12 animal heads representing the Chinese zodiac that displayed outside New York’s Plaza Hotel while he was still in detention.
While his statements against the Chinese government have been censored by its state media, Ai also gained a following on his blog – which was shut down by the Chinese government in 2009 and immortalized in a 2011 book – and on Twitter, where he posted pictures of head injuries he said were inflicted on him by Chinese authorities in 2009.
The Berlin show, called “Evidence,” runs through July 7, and in video messages Ai has lobbied the Chinese government to return to him his passport so he can see the exhibit in person. The Kickstarter project – which is being spearheaded by the film’s director and writer Jason Wishnow, formerly the film director behind TED Talks – is seeking to raise $33,000 to cover its production costs.