From a Beijing home base where free speech is often suppressed — sometimes brutally — AI WEIWEI (born 1957) champions individual expression. Excelling at everything from sculpture to architecture to blogging to competitive blackjack, he is best known for his wide-ranging conceptual artwork, where whimsical presentation fronts a sharp political bite. Sunflower Seeds envisioned viewers walking, or even rolling, on a carpet of over 100 million handmade porcelain seeds. Remembering, a deceptively optimistic-looking amassing of children’s backpacks, is a poignant record of rural schoolchildren who died in a 2008 earthquake due to the contravention of civil engineering laws. The Bird’s Nest, on which he consulted, remains the architectural standout of any modern Olympics, its exuberant lines echoing sprinters’ laps and divers’ arabesques. Ai grew up in a labor camp, where his family was sent after his poet father was denounced; as prolific as his artistic output has been, his political and social criticism has kept pace. He blogged and Twittered until his accounts were shut down, then reissued his communications in book form. He webchats and Skypes, and participates in high-profile international exhibitions — but his exposure comes at a price. In 2009, Ai was punched by police, which caused an almost-fatal brain hemorrhage. In 2011, he was detained by the Chinese government for 81 days, causing an international outcry. He has been charged with offenses ranging from tax fraud to bigamy to pornography. Along with his family and associates, he has been put under house arrest and suffered other restrictions of language and movement. But Ai keeps on. His recent photographic nudes, such as One Tiger Eight Breasts, confront us with what he calls “the naked truth.” There is a buoyancy to Ai that lends his work weight.
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