It's customary by now to describe Ai Weiwei as a dissident artist--which he is. His body of work is a decades-long critique of China's headlong attempt to become a modern economy without becoming a free society. If anything, he's more famous lately for his activism than for his art. And no doubt he's fine with that. What you learn from his new retrospective at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington--his first in the U.S.--is that increasingly his art is inseparable from his activism. His work of recent years is a succession of blows against the empire, a sustained demand that China's government take seriously ideas like human rights and freedom of speech. It's a brave and essential stand, even if you come away more impressed by the man than by some of what he's made.
When Ai, 55, first gained attention in the mid-1990s, it was for art that cast a cold eye on China's willingness to despoil its past in its rush to the future. He famously photographed himself dropping what he said was a 2,000-year-old Han-dynasty urn and letting it smash, as if to say, Who cares anymore? Later he used timber from demolished temples from the Qing dynasty (1644--1912) to build maps of China. It was the work of a man fluent in the usual streams of contemporary art--minimalism, conceptualism, installation art--and applying them to the contradictions of a communist state going capitalist at warp speed.
In all of this, Ai was critical of the new China but not enough to bring on cops with billy clubs. Things changed after the May 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province, where more than 5,000 children died in collapses of shoddily constructed schools. When authorities refused to look into the building failures or even acknowledge the death toll, Ai lent his support to a citizens' investigation by ordinary Chinese people. Consequences followed. In 2009 police in the city of Chengdu severely beat him, leading to a near fatal cerebral hemorrhage a few weeks later. The government shut down the invaluable blog he used to preach the gospel of human rights. Last year he was seized by the police and held for 81 days. The authorities insist they went after him for tax evasion, not for political reasons. That claim is, to put it mildly, contrived.
Ai was born to be an outsider. Not long after Ai's birth in 1957, his father Ai Qing, a prominent poet, was denounced as a bourgeois rightist and exiled with his family to the provincial northwest. Ai Weiwei returned to Beijing in 1976, then five years later moved to the U.S., eventually to New York City. During more than a decade in Manhattan, he came to grips with the work of Marcel Duchamp and Jasper Johns, hung out with Allen Ginsberg and saw the AIDS warriors of ACT UP in action.