Ai Weiwei: Harnessing the Power of Art and Social Media

Anya DunaifDecember 27, 2016The Heroic SpiritFeatures

Something about artist and activist Ai Weiwei inspired me — compelled me — to travel from New York City to Washington, DC just so I could see his exhibit, Ai Weiwei: According to What?, at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

If I was moved to take a three-and-half-hour train ride to see his work in person, I can only imagine the inspirational power he has over his compatriots in China, especially among youth yearning for greater freedom and opportunities for creativity.

I was introduced to Ai Weiwei’s work by chance. One Sunday afternoon in the spring of 2011, I spotted statues of the 12 animals of the zodiac in front of Manhattan’s Pulitzer Fountain. Standing 10 feet tall and lined up in in a row, they possessed a beautiful, majestic aura. Having studied Chinese, I was quite intrigued. I examined the sculptures, the mist from the fountain floating up from behind them and cooling my face. More than a year later, in the summer of 2012, I encountered the statues again, this time circling the fountain belonging to the Hirshhorn in Washington, DC. The second sighting of the exquisite bronze zodiac heads sparked an interest deep within me. Upon returning to my home in Brooklyn, I discovered that a documentary, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, was playing at the IFC Center, a movie theater in Greenwich Village, which shows independent, classic, and foreign films. As a teenage girl interested in film, the prospect of seeing a documentary written, directed, and filmed by a young woman, Alison Klayman, was absolutely fantastic. From then on, Ai Weiwei, his story and his art, have captivated me.

Anya Dunaif at exhibition

Ai Weiwei was born in Beijing in 1957. His father, Ai Qing, a prominent poet, was exiled a year later by the Communist Party for criticizing its suppression of free speech. The Ai family lived in squalid conditions, and as a young boy, Ai Weiwei had to build his own furniture, which must have helped to shape the artistic talent within him. After the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, the family returned to Beijing. Just five years later, Ai Weiwei decided to leave China and move to New York City, swearing never to return. On the way to the airport he told his mother, “I’m going home.” He lived in Manhattan with other young Chinese expatriates, exploring art and culture for more than a decade. Ai continuously documented both his life and those of his friends, many of whom would become prominent artists and musicians. Ai frequently photographed now renowned composer Tan Dun, filmmaker Chen Kaige, the artist Xu Bing, and also the poet Allen Ginsberg, his upstairs neighbor and a friend to both Ai Weiwei and his father. (Ginsberg and Ai Qing had met in Beijing years before.) Ai spent a lot of time in museums and was very influenced by the works of Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol. He also captured the happenings taking place in 1980’s New York — the lives of the homeless, park protests, and, perhaps most importantly, cultural change. These photographs are now shown in museums. They are works of art and also mark the beginning of a process that would shape Ai: the documenting of his own life and the society around him. Now, decades later, he is able to harness the tools that are provided by social media, like Twitter and YouTube, to document occurrences in China and reach a worldwide audience. It is all the more remarkable that he is able to do so in a country where the Internet is so heavily monitored.

In 1993, Ai Weiwei came back to China in order to be close to his ailing father. Although he had vowed never to return, Ai felt that in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square protests he had to participate in whatever was going to happen in his home country. He became a part of the new underground art scene in China where he created a series of books: The Black Cover Book, The White Cover Book, and The Grey Cover Book, which contained pictures of contemporary art and photography virtually inaccessible to the public. Although he was artistically rebellious, Ai “initially behaved himself politically” (as Nicholas Kristoff describes in a New York Times article about the artist). He did not openly criticize The People’s Republic of China, and ultimately helped design the Olympic Stadium in Beijing, known as the Bird’s Nest. This project gained him international recognition. Soon, Ai stopped “behaving.” The devastating Sichuan earthquake in May 2008 sparked a desire within him to demand more government transparency and accountability. The earthquake caused more than 5,000 student deaths and the government refused to take responsibility for the badly built schools that collapsed, which have been dubbed “tofu buildings.” Ai Weiwei, followed by his film crew, investigated the wrongful deaths of the schoolchildren. He tried to interview government officials, recorded distraught parents, and took pictures of demolished school buildings next to still erect ones. Ai put his demands and observations online, using social media, and also harnessed the power of art to express the calamities of the earthquake. With the help of many volunteers, he compiled a list of the names of all the deceased children and publicized it (to see the list visit Ai’s increasing popularity allowed him to act on behalf of the people affected by the earthquake who were unable to do so themselves because of the dire consequences of speaking out. Using his global platform, Ai was also one of the first prominent Chinese people to denounce the Beijing Olympics. He believed that the games were not used to open up Chinese society, but rather as propaganda, hiding the real China from the world.

"Tumblr," 2008

Ai’s international renown allows him to take a stand against what he perceives as wrongful government activities. However, his actions have not gone unpunished. In 2009, before testifying at the trial of his fellow activist Tan Zuoren, police beat him so severely that he needed emergency brain surgery and was unable to appear in court. He took this calamitous occurrence and created a work of art out of his MRI brain scan. One can literally see what is inside Ai Weiwei’s head. The piece hangs simply, with no frame or glass covering. It is a true document of the artist’s life. It serves to inform the viewer of misdeeds of the government, and yet is also interesting visually. Ai has the unique ability to make a political or social statement in an aesthetically pleasing form.

Not long after the attack, his newly built Shanghai studio, which was originally welcomed by the government, was torn down. Then one day in late March 2011, Ai was detained at the Beijing airport before he could board a plane to Hong Kong. He was held with no charge in solitary confinement. Eventually, the government stated that Ai was being detained on charges of tax evasion and distributing pornography. Throughout the world, people reacted to his imprisonment, and websites like (which now serves as an information hub) sprung up demanding his release. Eighty-one days later, Ai Weiwei was freed. He was prohibited from leaving Beijing, communicating with journalists, or using the Internet. What would this mean for his activism and outspokenness in the future? Not much time passed before he continued speaking out and inspiring others to act. Ai refuses to back down. He is not sorry for his actions — and as the title of the documentary about him states, he never will be. He will persevere through his bravery and art.

The exhibit I saw at the Hirshhorn, Ai Weiwei: According to What?, is not a tribute to Ai Weiwei, but rather his tribute to society. It is not meant to show off his work, but to inform people about Chinese, American, and human culture. In my opinion, there are three main themes recurrent in the exhibit: cultural change, the destruction of the old allowing for the creation of the new, and phenomena hidden from the people by the government.

"Colored Vases," 2007-2010

I was drawn to pieces created using ancient pottery, which represent recreation: Han Dynasty vases dipped in neon paint, a Neolithic age vase with the Coca-Cola logo written on it in silver, and a triptych of Ai dropping a Han Dynasty Urn. At first, I was flabbergasted: how could Ai destroy such priceless artifacts? Then I realized that he did not truly destroy them, he transformed them. The ancient pottery is a symbol of the countless things torn down by the Chinese government in order to build new cities and factories. The objects now tell a story — the story of constant metamorphosis.

Coming up the escalator to the second floor of the Hirshhorn, one can see the two entrances to Ai’s exhibit. On one side, there are hundreds of photographs of the Bird’s Nest as it was being built. These pictures of the monumental structure’s creation represent the continuous change and concealment taking place in China. The stadium and the Olympic games that it has come to symbolize were used as propaganda – showing the world a spectacle while hiding poverty and destruction. On the other side, a large black and white photograph of a slightly out of focus hand with its middle finger extended in front of the White House hangs alone on a blank wall. Intrigued by this picture, I entered the gallery. On the adjacent wall there hangs a similar photograph: a middle finger in front of the Forbidden City. By visually disrespecting symbols of great power, these images suggest that the governments of both China and the United States have not changed at the same rate as the ideas of the people; or that governments have not altered in the right way.

The motif of cultural change is interspersed throughout the exhibit. It is apparent in Ai’s photographs of late 20th-century New York City and in works of art created using ancient wood and carpentry techniques. Qing Dynasty chairs reused to construct a sculpture, a five-foot-tall, three-dimensional map of China crafted from the wood of ancient temples, and a beam extracted from a temple with the map of China carved vertically through it, all represent the fact that the way of life has altered – objects are always transformed by new generations of thought. Perhaps, these three pieces express a love for China, a distaste for the destruction that the government has caused, or a statement on how Chinese factories are constantly producing and labeling new objects with three words most people know well: “Made in China.” All of these meanings are plausible; the message of Ai Weiwei’s art is often multifaceted.

"Snake Ceiling," 2010

The most powerful images in the exhibit are related to the Sichuan earthquake and the Chinese government’s attempts to conceal the magnitude of its destruction. A list of the names of the children killed in the earthquake lines a long, curved wall. As one looks at the thousands of small black Chinese characters, the names are said aloud. Each name is voiced by a different person; each death is made evident. The effect is haunting. The voices (belonging to readers of Ai’s blog that has since been shut down) can be heard from the lobby of the museum and also throughout parts of the exhibit. The death of the children is everywhere — itis presented in photographs taken in Sichuan province where backpacks and papers are scattered throughout the rubble; it is in a massive sculpture made of metal rods taken from collapsed buildings; it is in a long snake made of green, gray, and black backpacks that line the ceiling. The snake is attractive and fun until you realize what it signifies; perhaps that is why it is on the ceiling — you must look up before you can see it and literally change your perspective. In a sense, the snake exemplifies much of Ai Weiwei’s art in the exhibit: look around and you will see something made of practical objects that have been rendered useless, but now have meaning — a meaning that is hidden until you are enlightened, made aware of the occurrences that have taken place in the world — and finally you understand the work. The metal rods have a similar effect. They are assembled in a beautiful, yet minimalist, wave-like formation on the floor. The rods symbolize uniformity, but also the significance of the individual. I believe that each rod represents one of the children who died in the earthquake. Each has slightly different coloring and markings, yet they are all in the same state. The rods have been removed from the structures that they once supported just like the children who have been removed from this world.

Through his art and constant documentation, Ai Weiwei possesses immense power. This power is that of spreading information and expanding people’s understanding of the world. I follow Ai on Twitter, am subscribed to him on YouTube, and read the postings from his blog on that was shut down in 2009, but have since been published in book form. I have watched films about him and seen his artwork in person. But, I’m not stopping here. I will follow Ai’s story as it progresses. In April 2014, Ai Weiwei: According to What? is coming to the Brooklyn Museum, which is just blocks away from my home. I cannot wait to experience the exhibit again and wonder how I will re-interpret the works. How will my views have altered? How will the world have changed? What will Ai have to say?

All photographs by Anya Dunaif. Taken at Ai Weiwei: According to What? at the Hirshhorn Museum/Smithsonian.

Anya Dunaif is a senior at Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn, New York. Her interests include visual art, film, writing, science, and languages (Mandarin, Ancient Greek, and Latin).