Ai Weiwei

Book review: Ai Weiwei’s provocative career is captured in a mammoth Taschen tome

China’s most famous living artist has endured surveillance, persecution and sometimes imprisonment, but his work has grown ever more vital and important despite – or perhaps because of – the state’s disapproval

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 May, 2016, 11:43am
UPDATED : Monday, 09 May, 2016, 11:48am

Ai Weiwei

edited by Hans Werner Holzwarth


4/5 stars

Despite – or perhaps because of – the Communist Party’s best efforts to have him silenced, Ai Weiwei remains the most famous and influential Chinese artist alive today.

Ai, who helped design the National Stadium for the Beijing Olympics in 2008, spectacularly fell out of favour with China’s rulers for launching a “citizen’s investigation” after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, but in the years since his star has risen internationally, with large-scale exhibitions at galleries in cities such as London, San Francisco, Berlin and Melbourne.

My political activism is helping efforts to change China, says artist Ai Weiwei

All along, the artist has continued to literally raise a middle finger at the party whenever he gets a chance, and the fruits of this provocative career have now been collected in a 600-page omnibus created by boutique publisher Taschen. A limited (and very expensive) collector’s edition was released in 2014, but this new regular edition of the monograph puts it within reach of Ai’s followers of more modest means.

The collection follows Ai’s career from when he was a young, up-and-coming artist in New York in the early 1980s through to 2013, and charts his evolution from a young devotee of Dadaist Marcel Duchamp into the agent provocateur working on a grand scale we see today.

Most striking are the works which repurpose artefacts taken from thousands of years of Chinese history to comment on the state of the nation today – the Neolithic Chinese vases painted with the Coca-Cola logo, the smashed Han Dynasty urns, the maps of China made from dismantled Qing Dynasty temples, and the hypnotic arrays of iconic Chinese bicycles and wooden stools.

His use of the “ready-made” object (a technique pioneered by Duchamp) becomes more powerful as Ai begins to work on a bigger and more challenging scale (such as the Sunflower Seeds installation at the Tate Modern, or the series of installations of steel reinforcing bars retrieved from the rubble of the quake in Sichuan).

The powerful photographs of such works are complemented by some thoughtful essays – the book opens with an overview of Ai’s work by long-time friend and former Swiss ambassador to China Uli Sigg, and closes with an excellent look at the Chinese traditions employed in the artists’ work, such as his use of pottery, porcelain and bronze.

As Ai Weiwei’s London retrospective shows, his art and his politics can’t be separated

Ai’s Shanghai studio may have been demolished by authorities, he may have suffered a cerebral haemorrhage after being beaten by police and he may have been repeatedly placed under house arrest and under surveillance, but the authorities seem unable to stop him – and the art world remains all the more richer and dynamic because of this.