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Courtesy the artist

The dA-Zed guide to Ai Weiwei

Art, activism and asteroids: in honour of his upcoming Royal Academy show, we give you the need-to-know on China’s cultural juggernaut

Ai Weiwei – easily one of the most provocative and outspoken visionaries of the 21st century – is returning to London this year for one of the biggest shows of his international career. The self-titled retrospective, opening at the Royal Academy in September, is set to be a riotous mix of the artist's most controversial work: spanning from the anarchic urn-shatterings of the late 90s to the world famous humanitarian projects of the present day. It's a hotly anticipated comeback – and after four years of Beijing confinement, a very welcome one. To celebrate his new agenda (and passport), we give you the ultimate need-to-know on the icon's life so far.


Yep. An asteroid. According to an article in China's Ming Pao, Ai Weiwei is lucky enough to have one named after him. “83598 Aiweiwei” (or the “Ai Weiwei star”) was given the name by Canadian astronomer Yang Guangyu, who chose to devote the star to Ai purely for his artistic contributions to the world – not for any human rights campaigning or political work. Once he discovered the news, Ai was thrilled to pieces, obviously. His exact words? “How interesting.” 


Between 1983 and 1995, while living in New York, Ai picked up a serious blackjack habit. In fact, he became such a rated player, that the game allegedly became his main source of income – with Weiwei making the 120 mile drive to Atlantic City at least twice a week to try his luck in the casinos. According to, he was such a good customer that he would regularly receive free suites, limos and dinners from the venues he played in.


Let's put it simply: Ai Weiwei really likes cats. With around forty felines (at last count) stalking his Bejing compound, his obsession has become international knowledge – even spawning its own ‘Cats of Ai Weiwei’ tumblr account. For his latest project, which involves bringing the artist's tree sculptures to London's Royal Academy via a Kickstarter campaign, potential contributors are even being offered a thank you ‘wink’ from one of them. 


Back in 2013, Ai took a tumble into the dark and bewildering world of heavy metal with “Dumbass” – an intense five minute fussillade of furious guitars and guttural screams. In an interview with The Guardian around the time of the record's release, he claimed it was intended to be “a kind of self-therapy”, helping him find closure from his 81-day dentention in 2011. “I had to do it because that helped me to overcome the trauma” he claimed. “Music is a kind of self-therapy and at the same time helps the public to see. Even conditions like these can still turn into a positive effort.” 


After being arrested at Beijing airport in 2011 for apparent ‘economic crimes’, Ai famously vanished. For 81 days, no one was really sure of his whereabouts – leading to worldwide campaigns (famously led by the #FreeAiWeiwei hashtag which ran across social media). It was only after, once he was freed from his detainment, that the appauling conditions he had been kept in came to light. Kept in a 12' by 24' box room without windows, he was watched over constantly by military police, and was unable to move – even to scratch his ear – without asking their permission.


The four-lettered expletive could well be Ai's favourite English word. Alongside the middle finger – which he famously photographed in front of some of the world's most important landmarks in his “Study of Perspective” series – ‘Fuck’ is a word that crops up often in his work, as well as on his Instagram. He even named one of his most successful group art shows after it. Fuck off was held at Beijing's Eastlink Gallery, and featured Ai's work and 46 other avant-garde artists who, put simply, really didn't give a fuck. 


Whilst living in New York, Ai famously made friends with Beat poet Allen Ginsberg – an anti-establishment icon who set the world alight with his political polemic Howl. With comparisons often being drawn between the two for their shared ideals and outlooks, it's not all that surprising that their friendship took off – though the artist never actually read his work. “I never really read his poetry, even though I have a book he gave me,” he told The Believer in 2007. “I liked the cover and I admire that he wrote so much. But I never really read it.”


Weiwei's horrific 81 day detention was not the first time he found trouble with the Chinese government. In 2009, he was beaten so severely by police in Chengdu that he had to undergo surgery for a cerebral haemorrhage. He had been protesting against the lack of media coverage following 2008's Sichuan earthquake (see Q) when he was allegedly attacked – though it wasn't until a month later that he realised how serious the injuries were. “I got a call from Ai’s assistant Xiao Xu, who said that Ai had been suffering from a headache ever since the violent encounter with the Chengdu police a month ago,” wrote activist lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan, in a statement from the time. “It had gotten serious all of a sudden today, and a medical checkup in Germany had determined that ‘trauma-induced hemorrhage between the brain and skull’ and the doctors told him to have surgery immediately.”


Ai Weiwei's trauma from his time spent in prison is a subject that's often revisited in his work. As well as attempting to reconstruct the inhumane living conditions in his video for “Dumbass”, he also created a chilling installation for 2013's Venice Biennale with the same aim in mind. “S.A.C.R.E.D” – which is arguably one of the artist's most memorable and disturbing creations – was made from six black steel boxes which each featured half-life size scenes (with no details left spared) from his military police base detainment. 


The Jasmine Revolution is another name for the Chinese pro-democracy protests, which swept across the country in 2011. The levels of discontentment amongst the public at the time was at an all-time high, mainly due to the government's overbearing surveillance methods. It became such an issue that the word 'Jasmine' was even being blocked by Chinese internet search engines to help prevent any further uprising. Ai, naturally, was vocal in his support of the movement, and kept a tally on Twitter of the growing numbers of detained 'Jasmine' protesters. He even provocatively tweeted: “I didn't care about jasmine at first, but people who are scared by jasmine sent out information about how harmful jasmine is… which makes me realize that jasmine is what scares them the most.”


In one of his more bizarre and unexplainable moments, Ai tried out the “Gangnam Style” horse-trot in his very own parody video of the K-Pop classic. At the time no one was sure what was happening – and to be honest, no one really knows now. The only thing you can really do is watch.


Ai's antiestablishmentarianism runs deep – you could even say it's in his blood. His father, poet Ai Qing, was known for being equally provocative, and during China's anti-rightist movement in the 50s he was denounced and sent to labour camp with his family. At the time Ai was barely a year old, and though they were only temporarily detained there, he remained in exile for 16 years before finally being able to return to Beijing.


In the spirit of his father, Ai's respect for classic Chinese traditions is almost non-existent. Aiming another of his middle fingers at the creative achievements of the Ming, Qing and Han Dynasties, the artist has courted controversy by regularly reconstructing precious cultural artefacts – sometimes just destroying them altogether. He threw multicoloured paint across 15000-year-old Neolithic vases for his “Coloured Vases” series, added a Coca-Cola logo to a priceless Han Dynasty Urn, and then shattered another to pieces in 1995. See F to get more details on this kind of mindset.


This 2012 documentary film from Alison Klayman offers one of the most insightful glimpses into the artist's life so far. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry followed every aspect of his expansive career: from his 2009 work with the Sichuan earthquake to his 2011 detainment by Chinese authorities. It's a heroic, eye-opening look into the life of the art world anarchist – and picked up the special jury prize at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival for that very reason.


Aside from the ‘economic crimes’ that the Chinese authorities were quick to slam Ai with during the Jasmine Revolution, he was also put under investigation for spreading pornography. It seems like an unlikely offense, but that's kind of because it was – one of their only reasons to justify it was a portrait taken several years prior. “One Tiger Eight Breasts” featured Ai and four other women: all of them naked and sitting on wooden chairs. Despite courting controversy, it's probably the least sexual image you'll ever see – with more comparisons being drawn to Zen spirituality than online sex shows.


After being seized at Beijing airport in April 2011, Ai's passport was confiscated – leaving him unable to leave his native China. In protest against the ban, he staged a daily demonstration by placing fresh flowers outside his studio each morning. Now, in 2015, four years after the Communist party crackdown, his passport has finally been returned (he announced the news on Instagram and was greeted with over 11,000 likes). 


After being hit by an 8.0-magnitude earthquake in 2008, the Sichuan Province of China was a disaster zone. Ai Weiwei headed to the area to survey the post-quake conditions, only to be stunned by the substandard constructions of the the schools (something that may have played a part in the death of over 5000 students). He launched a citizen's investigation, mainly through social media, in an attempt to highlight the government's lack of transparency – but it led to a severe beating at the hands of Chinese police.


An official ambassador for the Paris-based press organisation, Ai has never shied away from lending his voice to a worthy cause. Reporters Without Borders' main goal is to defend and promote freedom of the press – something that's actively supported amongst human rights activists in China and throughout the world. Upon being made ambassador, the artist featured in the organisation's prestigious “100 Photos for Press Freedom” series, offering up some of his most important and iconic visual work. 


If there's one thing Ai is known for (aside from all the amazing art, political statements and human rights activism, obviously) it's his love of a good self-portrait. A quick look at his Instagram will verify this, too: almost every shot is dominated by his face in various everyday, mundane situations. His most famous selfie, which was taken in 2011 as the police were arresting him, only shows his devotion to the cause.


Aside from Instagram, Ai's other social media obsession is Twitter. With over 284,000 followers in China alone (and countless other translated accounts), it's become his main way of getting his voice heard – and a huge part of his artistic identity. “When you use social media, time passes so quickly,” he told The Creator's Project this year. “It is like you are living in another reality where time travels at a different speed. I fully enjoy this experience. It is a very high state, like that in Zen Buddhist philosophy, to not have self-consciousness and to forget your own existence.”


From his love of Blackjack to his friendship with Allen Ginsberg, Ai took to the US culture like a duck to water. He lived in New York throughout the 80s – even briefly studying at the prestigious Parsons School of Design – and the city became part of one of his most known photo series: “The New York Photographs”. There are even some suggestions that his exposure to American art icons like Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns ultimately helped him make the move towards conceptualism.


After finally getting his passport returned after four years, Ai ran into trouble last month when he tried to apply for entry to the UK. According to British authorities, he was nearly denied a six-month business visa due to an undeclared criminal conviction from his home country. After an uprising on social media, where Weiwei posted the rejection letter, home secretary Theresa May was forced to review – and ultimately overturn – the decision.


Ai's wife, Lu Qing, is also an artist. Although appearing in some of her husband's most provocative work – including one infamous shot of her raising her skirt in front of Mao's portrait on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre – her own creative work couldn't be more different. Creating just one piece a year, she works with an 82 feet bolt of fine silk, which she then paints on with acrylic paint. Whatever state the bolt is in by the year's end is exactly how she leaves it – whether full, half-finished or with nothing on it at all. 


Ai Weiwei is often compared to fellow artist and dissident, Liu Xiaobo. The pair have both had difficulties with Chinese authorities – with Xiaobo currently in the process of serving an 11-year prison sentence for “spreading a message to subvert the country and authority”. In 2010, Ai was even prohibited from travelling to South Korea to award the Nobel Peace Prize to Xiaobo for reasons of national security. “The Chinese government are very upset about this,” he told journalists at the time. “(It's) really silly.”


Little known in the English-speaking world, Weiwei's documentaries have caused controvery in China (who'd have thought it?) for their sensitive subject matter. One of them, One Recluse, looks at the life of Yang Jia: a Beijing resident who broke into a police station in 2008 and killed six police officers with knives and Molotov cocktails. Ai's focus, much to the dismay of Shanghai municipal authorities, was on the reasons and motivations behind the crime – and there was even a mild flirtation with the idea that Jia's act could be seen as heroic. 


“Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads” – although not his most confrontational piece – is an excellent example of the Ai's tendancy to play with nationalist symbolism. Copied from sculptures that were stolen by the west in the Second Opium War and scattered throughout the world, his recreations are a poke at the seriousness of Chinese tradition. “My work is always dealing with real or fake, authenticity, what the value is, and how the value relates to current political and social understandings and misunderstandings,” he told Alison Klayman in 2012's Never Sorry. “I think there's a strong humorous aspect there.”

Ai Weiwei opens at the Royal Academy from September 19