Chinese activist and artist Ai Weiwei is a figure of international cultural importance. Aged 21, he was a member of Les Étoiles, a group of avant-garde artists, who rejected Chinese Socialist Realism and advocated artistic individualization and experimentation. In 1981 he moved to New York, where he was influenced by the conceptual works of Marcel Duchamp and started to incorporate daily life objects in his work. He returned to China in the 1990s and became very politically active against the government.
He is very outspoken in his criticism of the Chinese government, which resulted in him being detained for months in 2011, without an official charge. He sees protecting the right of expression as the central part of an artist’s activity and adds, “In China many essential rights are lacking, and I wanted to remind people of this.” Ai Weiwei is best known with his conceptual work and colossal installations, sparking a dialogue between the tradition and contemporary, or voicing a political agenda. His Sunflower Seeds (2010) for the Tate Modern consists of 100 million porcelain “seeds”, hand painted by 1,600 Chinese artisans, drawing attention to the mass consumption and the loss of individuality.
In another conceptual work, he painted a Han Dynasty urn with the Coca Cola logo, creating the Coca Cola Vase (1994). One of his most influential works is his sculptural installation Straight at the 2013 Venice Art Biennale, where him and workers in his studio bent 150 tons of steel rebar straight. The work told the story of the children who died in a collapsed school during the Sichuan Earthquake in 2008 and drew attention to the government corruption that resulted in this tragedy by allowing the “tofu” buildings. All 150 tons of the steel bars were recovered from the collapsed schools where children have died. Explaining his reason for being vocal about oppressed people around the world, Ai Weiwei once said, “If my art has nothing to do with people's pain and sorrow, what is 'art' for?”
After regaining his passport in 2015, Weiwei moved to Germany and continued his conceptual works drawing attention to the sorrows of the refugees of the world. He also shoots documentaries, most of which document how his colossal installations are made. Although he makes works mainly for museum and gallery installations, his auction value has leaped in 2015 from about right below $ 3 million to around $10 million.