Dissident Art of Ai Wei Wei (1)

Dr. Sunil Deepak, 03 November 2019

Ai Wei Wei from China is one of the most famous contemporary artists. His name had become known because of a couple of controversial art installations. Through his art he has brought the spot-light on the absurdities of unequal power balances in the modern world, pointing fingers at both the totalitarian regimes as well as, the so-called civilized countries.

Riaz/Roots exhibition of Ai Wei Wei - Image by Sunil Deepak

The image above shows the entrance to the Wei Wei exhibition in the CCBB atrium in Rio de Janeiro, with a couple of "Roots" sculptures which gave the title Raiz (Roots) to this exhibition. During 2017-18, Wei Wei visited Brazil, where he came across these roots of the massive Pequi Vinegreiro trees, which were once common here and which now risk extinction.

In August, while in Brazil, by chance I came across this exhibition. It was organized in 2 locations. However, due to my work commitments, I was only able to visit one of the locations, the Cultural Centre of the Banco do Brasil (CCBB), which had his works from the period 2009 to 2018. This is the first part of a post describing those works, covering the period 2009 to a part of 2015. The second part of this post covers his works from 2015 to 2018, including some art installations he has created in Brazil.

Ai Wei Wei's Background

Wei Wei was born in Beijing in 1957. His father Ai Qing (Jiang Haicheng) was a well known poet who was a communist party member and who had been in jail during 1930s for opposing Kuomintang. When Chairman Mao's cultural revolution started, there was a deep distrust of poets, intellectuals and thinkers and thus Ai Qing was forced to shift to a small rural comune, where his job was to clean the toilets. Wei Wei accompanied his father during 5 years of their stay in this comune.

There is a story about Ai Qing, afraid of being labelled "elite", one night burned his poetry and other books, with his son's help. This left a deep impression on Wei Wei's psyche, who was around 9 years old at that time.

Ai Qing was finally rehabilitated in the communist party in 1979. In 1981, Wei Wei went to live in New York, where he lived for 12 years and became an artist. Back in China in 1993, two years later he sparked wide outrage and became famous for his artwork called "Dropping a Hun Dynasty Urn". For making this art installation, Wei Wei dropped and broke into pieces a 2000 years old urn and the whole scene was documented in a series of 3 photographs. Through this installation, Wei Wei denounced the destruction of hundreds of old Chinese temples and buildings along with their ancient treasures during the years of Mao's communist revolution.

In 2006, another art installation of Wei Wei called "Coloured Vases" made news all over the world, when he took 39 Neolithic vases and covered them in industrial paint. With this installation, he wanted to denounce the destruction of world's habitat along with old cultures due to non-stop onslaught of humanity and commercial interests.

Even when not making international news, Wei Wei was continuously challenging the Chinese Government by criticising it through his art. In 2009 he was placed under house arrest and in 2010-11, his new art studio was bull-dozed. Some of his most subversive and dissident art came during these years. Finally in 2015, his first solo exhibition was held at Galleria Continua & Tang Art Centre in Beijing and in July 2015, his passport was given back to him. After his release, he relocated to Berlin (Germany).

Works from 2009

The Raiz exhibition had two of his works from 2009, before he was placed under the house arrest.

The first one is called Porcelain Cube. It has a cube outline made from 1 metre long porcelain cylindrical tubes made according to the traditional Qinghua technique, known for their blue coloured designs. Thus, the cube itself is a negative space.

Porcelain Cube by Ai Wei Wei - Image by Sunil Deepak

The second one is called "The Hanging Man", which has the profile of the American artist Duchamp made from a porcelain hanger. During his years in New York, Wei Wei had been greately influenced by Duchamp's works. It is a small work and you can see it below on the wall-paper art from 2015 called "The animal that looks like a Llama but is really an Alpaca" (Last image at the bottom).

Works from 2010-2015

These are his works from the years when he was under house arrest and immediately after it.

The first one is called the "Sun Flower Seeds" & is from 2010. For this installation, Wei Wei had made millions of porcelain sunflower seeds. Each seed was crafted individually in northern Jiangxi province, an area known for its kilns where they made imperial porcelains. Initially authorities could not understand the meaning of this installation. It was recalling the hero-worship cult of Chairman Mao, who was called the Sun and people were supposed to follow their leader like sunflowers.

Sunflower Seeds by Ai Wei Wei - Image by Sunil Deepak

The sun-flower seeds also reminded about the days of political rallies called by the supreme leader (Mao), where people went with sunflower seeds in their pockets so that they could eat something when they became hungry. This kind of subtle irony and hidden criticism of the communist regime became Wie Wie's approach, which was difficult to control by the authorities.

The second one is called He Xie or the river crabs and is also from 2010. These represent the destruction of his art studio in Shanghai. When Wie Wie was told that bull-dozers will raze his studio to ground, he organized a He Xie party for his friends for an ironical celebration. The authorities were confused that he was celebrating the imminent destruction. Finally, they decided to place him under house arrest.

He Xie/River Crab by Ai Wei Wei - Image by Sunil Deepak

The installation is composed of 1000 river crabs in porcelain, each made individually. Ai explained, "In different dynasties, people used to make these crabs from jade, bamboo or onyx. In 1976, when the gang of 4 was arrested, to celebrate it many artists had made the sculptures of these river crabs." There was another subtle message in the crabs - its Chinese name, He Xie, sounds like the Chinese word for harmony. Thus, it alludes to the struggle between the authorities and the society in the name of maintaining "a harmonious society".

The third one is called "The hanger" (2011) and has cloth-hangers in different materials - steel, wood and crystal. During the house arrest he was allowed to keep only a few things, which included some hangers. These sculptures are a reference to his house arrest and thus represent an oppressive regime. These also recall similar works by some American artists like Marcel Duchamp.

Hanger by Ai Wei Wei - Image by Sunil Deepak

The 4th is called the Mask and is from 2013. It has a mask in marble, placed on a tomb stone. Carved from a single piece of marble, this mask represented the smog covering Bejing, due to unregulated industrialization which did not respect the environment. It can also be seen as a symbol of un-breathable air across different cities of the world due to pollution, as is affecting Delhi during these days.

Mask by Ai Wei Wei - Image by Sunil Deepak

The fifth art installation is called "Grapes" and is made of 32 antique Chinese wooden stools from the Qing dynasty and is from 2014. The stools have been joined together, using the traditional wood-working techniques. Like the more controversial destruction of the antique urn mentioned earlier, this was a criticism of the destruction of ancient art, culture, heritage and religion during the cultural revolution.

Grazpes by Ai Wei Wei - Image by Sunil Deepak


To the see the pictures of Wei Wei's controversial installations "Destroying a Hun dynasty urn" and "Coloured vases" is a deeply disturbing experience. Try searching for these 2 installations on internet. The destruction of antique vases which go back to thousands of years is like a wound in the soul, because that loss can never be repaired.

Through these installations, Wei Wei hits us with a killer punch forcing us to think not only of the years of destruction during the cultural revolution in China. It also forces us to think of millions of persons killed in the Holocaust by the Nazi regime or by ideologues running totalitarian regimes in China and Cambodia. It is a reminder of the destruction done by radical Islamists - the Bamayan Buddha statue, and ancient ruins in cities like Mosul, Nimrud and Palmyra in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Libya.

I am concluding this post with an art work of Wei Wei from 2015 - it is a wallpaper called "The animal that looks like a Llama but is really an Alpaca". The title of this artwork refers to the optical illusion. On a first glance, the wallpaper looks composed of geometric designs. A closer look shows you that it is made of elements like surveillance cameras, handcuffs, twitter birds and alpacas, each a representation of his struggles with the Chinese authorities and symbols of the Chinese society. Hanging on the wall, you can also see this 2009 work called the Hanging Man.

Llama/Alpaca wallpaper by Ai Wei Wei - Image by Sunil Deepak

The second part of this post will focus on his remaining works from 2015 and later, that were presented in the Raiz exhibition.


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Dr Sunil Deepak
Schio (VI), Italy

Email: sunil.deepak(at)gmail.com