Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, Ai Weiwei, 1995

Chances are if you’ve been following art news in the past few weeks, you’ve seen the name Ai Weiwei. Ai’s been all over the place lately, having a public conversation with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, getting interviewed on CNN about the role of social media in Chinese politics, and documenting recent artist protests in Beijing. The artist was even announced as the eleventh commission for the London Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall installation series, a run of exhibitions featuring such luminaries as Doris Salcedo, Rachel Whiteread and Olafur Eliasson.

Ai is among the most significant and well known stars of the Chinese contemporary art world. Yet unlike many of his internationally famous peers, he’s never been one to shirk what he sees as his public duty: to constantly challenge, protest and spread awareness of lack of freedom of speech and freedom of information in China.

During the March 15 conversation between Ai, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and ReadWriteWeb founder Richard MacManus at New York’s Paley Center, Ai noted that young Chinese citizens (deemed ‘netizens’ for their online activism) question the logic of government censorship and blocking of sites like Facebook and Twitter just as we in the U.S. do. “The whole generation of young people just asks why,” Ai says.

A Twitpic from Ai Weiwei assuring followers that he was okay after surgery to recover from a beating by Chinese police. (http://twitpic.com/hsz3b)

In his CNN interview, Ai noted that the Chinese Twitter blockade isn’t as monolithic as it seems. Internet savvy netizens make use of VPN networks and private servers to evade the Great Firewall and access social media sites. These sites are a “new tool for activism,” Ai says, allowing users to spread information quickly and remain aware of pressing political and social issues. Ai used Twitter to document artist protests in Beijing over the destruction of studio spaces for land development, also commented on by Hyperallergic.

Social media makes it easy for such important events to be picked up by the international media; the artist says that as a result of social media broadcasting, the protests were covered by the New York Times, Reuters and the Wall Street Journal just the next day.

Ai is quickly becoming much more than an artist in the international spotlight. From activism to social media to biting political comentary through art, Ai has moved beyond conceptual provocateur to a multi-faceted position as a public intellectual for the entire world.


Kyle Chayka

Kyle Chayka was senior editor at Hyperallergic. He is a cultural critic based in Brooklyn and has contributed to publications including ARTINFO, ARTnews, Modern Painters, LA Weekly,...