Ai was born in Beijing in 1957 and is one of the best-known Chinese artists working internationally today.
‘Say what you can plainly and then take responsibility for it.’
Having designed the concept of the Bird’s Nest for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and dissociated himself from the Chinese Games he has been an outspoken critic of the Chinese government. Ai’s principles have cost him dearly; he has been assaulted by Chinese police, and in autumn 2010 he was placed under house arrest without charge until the following June. Ai is the son of twice-exiled poet Ai Qing (under the Kuomintang and then Mao) and spent his childhood in the countryside, where his father was being ‘re-educated’ under the anti-rightist campaign. The family relocated to Beijing after the Cultural Revolution but Ai left China for America. This life at odds with authority has manifested itself in an irreverence in his work. Dadaist art pranks are a critical part of Ai’s practice, for example his iconoclastic self-portrait, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, which unravels the contradictions of a political regime re-evaluating a material culture it had previously discarded. Ai’s interest in Chinese material culture is rarely predictable, with the artist commissioning highly-crafted replicas of Ming dynasty porcelain in one instance, preserving the feet from excavated broken Buddha statues in another, or customising antique wooden furniture. Perhaps it is a uniquely Chinese infusion of artist Marcel Duchamp’s questioning of the authority of the art object.