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#AiWeiwei at MoCP 2017
Illumination, 2009Photography Ai Weiwei, courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio

How Ai Weiwei found his voice

A new exhibition explores the controversial artist’s early photo works

Ai Weiwei has undoubtedly gained a reputation for being one of the most outspoken artists to come out of China. Now, a retrospective solo exhibit on the artist will open in Chicago’s MoCP museum entitled #AiWeiwei, looking at the development of his work over the last 30 years – particularly his early photo works.

The title is a fitting tribute to that evolution – especially due to his very public (often online) battle with the Chinese government. His covert detention in 2011 for 81 days led to the hashtag #FreeAiWeiwei and his four year wait for a passport spawned #AiCantBeHere to allow him to leave the country, and when the UK denied his working visa once again social media lobbied on his behalf.

His love of an evocative selfie has allowed him to document everything from his arrest, to the aftermath of a beating he received at the hands of police that left him hospitalised. Images from his Study of Perspective series (taken between 1995-2003), whereby he flips his middle finger at iconic landmarks such as The White House or the Eiffel Tower, are included, as is a photo of him cocking his leg as if it were a gun – which started a social media trend.

Each image in the exhibition is an additional diary entry in his lifelong effort to document the most mundane, and sometimes frightening, moments in his radical journey. Featuring black and white images of a young Ai exploring 80s New York and the famous Dropping A Han Dynasty Urn, art lovers in Chicago can see how over 30 years he’s mastered how to mix the personal and political in his continued quest for artistic freedom and activism. There’ll also a zine with an exclusive interview with Ai inside.

Recently, he has used his work to draw public attention to the refugee plight. In 2016, Ai closed his Copenhagen exhibition Ruptures three months early in protest at the Danish government’s decision to pass a controversial law confiscating valuables from refugees seeking asylum in the country. In Vienna, Austria, last year, Ai created an installation using 1,005 worn lifejackets and he's working on a film with 600 hours of footage collected on his trips to the camps and borders.

Most recently he announced that he would build 100 fences in New York in tribute to immigrants, which will open later this year.

#AiWeiwei will take place April 13–July 2 at MoCP in Chicago