Credit: Smithsonian Digital Studio

Born in Beijing in 1957, Ai Weiwei has gained world renown as one of China’s foremost contemporary artists. Yet he has also emerged as a powerful voice of dissent within its borders, denouncing the Chinese government’s repression of free speech and disregard for human rights. An earthquake in Sichuan, China, in 2008 drove a direct confrontation on this front: more than 5,000 school children died in the quake, a tragedy widely attributed to the region’s poorly constructed school buildings.

Alongside other activists, Ai mounted an investigation—over and against government attempts to quiet the scandal. Ai’s activism has inspired and motivated much of his art, installations that challenge authority and examine the value and place of the individual within society. The Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum hosted the first major retrospective of Ai’s work in the U.S., Ai Weiwei: According to What? (2012-2013), which included pieces commemorating those that died in the Sichuan earthquake.

One installation plays an audio recording over loudspeakers that lists the names and ages of the thousands of children killed, with a total duration of 3 hours and 41 minutes. Another installation, “Snake Ceiling,” is a serpentine form made from children’s backpacks. The show’s location, Washington, D.C., held significance—a home to liberal democracy as well as to political representatives from around the globe. More recently, the Hirshhorn exhibited a second major show, Ai Weiwei: Trace at Hirshhorn (2017-2018), which showcased his recent work and its focus on the detention and exile of individuals who have spoken out against injustice. “I have experienced an authoritarian society, and I realize why they hate art, why they have to censor art, why they have to control art,” Ai said in a conversation with Smithsonian Secretary David J. Skorton. “Art represents our instinct, our sensitivity, which we cannot—or still have not—clearly defined by science or by philosophy; it always comes so fast and unpredictable, and it bears a lot of danger because it is unpredictable.”

We must continue to make art in spite of this, he says, because “if we lost this kind of practice, I think it would be a true loss for humanity. We would not understand who we are, and not understand the moment we are in history—we would lose perspective.” — by Jo Constantz

(Banner image: Nam June Paik, "Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii" Smithsonian American Art Museum, © Nam June Paik Estate, Gift of the artist)