Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei may be the most famous Chinese artist working today, but he began life as a displaced person himself, which became entwined with his view of a world that demands action on every level of the imagination. Ai enrolled in the Beijing Film Academy. he became a founding member of the Stars Group, an underground movement to transform the Chinese art scene from tedious, state-mandated works to free, fearless individual expressions of a more electrifying and honest kind. In the early 1980s, Ai moved to New York to study at the Parsons School of Design, eventually dropping out to ply his living in a very organic New York way: as a street artist, photographer and blackjack player.
When his father became ill, Ai returned to China, where he once again became a prominent figure in the Beijing art scene. He explored every format, from furniture and architecture to films, photographs, paintings, writing, performance pieces and installations, as well as becoming a pioneer of the fledgling territory of the internet and social media.
Even as Ai’s global reputation grew, he was increasingly watched and harassed as a troublemaker by Chinese authorities. He was beaten by police, put under house arrest, relentlessly surveilled and in 2011, Ai was thrown in jail without plausible charges for 81 days as well as fined the Chinese equivalent of 1.85 million dollars. As all this went down, Ai’s dissent and documenting of his treatment became an art performance on its own.
Ai has since relocated to Berlin—the same country that in 2015 became an epicenter of the refugee crisis, briefly opening its doors without compunction.
Making films as one strand of his life of art is also not new to Ai. In China, he directed Disturbing the Peace and One Recluse, socially critical films probing the justice system. In So Sorry, he documented his investigations into students who died in the Sichuan earthquake due to corruption and shoddy construction, as well as the extreme government surveillance his investigations spurred. He also documented the creation of Ordos 100, in which he and the Swiss architectural firm of Herzog & de Meuron invited 100 different architects from 27 countries to design and build homes in Inner Mongolia. Most recently, in Ai Weiwei’s Appeal ¥15,220.910.50, Ai took account of his own journey through the Chinese court system after being pursued for unfounded tax evasion charges. Ai is perhaps best known in the U.S. for starring in a documentary about his art and activism—the Sundance Special Jury Prize winner, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, directed by Alison Klayman.
Though Human Flow is Ai’s largest film production to date, as in all of his films he uses a raw, continuous verité shooting style, a democratic eye towards everyday justice for ordinary people and appears as himself. The latter can have a grounding effect, with Ai’s presence becoming a conduit for the viewer to enter worlds that are discomfiting, stark, emotional. “Film is one of the expressions that makes it easiest to communicate and can reach a broader audience,” says Ai. As for what he believes film can accomplish, he says simply: “I have a very positive feeling that as humans we can convince each other to make the right decisions.”