Ai Weiwei Timeline

Ai Weiwei


As the Royal Academy gears up for a retrospective of the Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei, we look back at the life of this most radical and visionary provocateur.

Portrait of Ai Weiwei, 2012.
Photo credit: Gao Yuan.
Ai Weiwei in his studio in Caochangdi, Beijing
Ai Weiwei is born in Beijing, the son of the celebrated poet Ai Qing.
Ai Weiwei in his studio in Caochangdi, Beijing
Ai Weiwei in his studio in Caochangdi, Beijing, April 2015, Photograph © Harry Pearce/Pentagram 2015.
Family exiled
His father is denounced as a criminal following an anti-rightist campaign by Mao aimed at silencing intellectuals who oppose his regime. The family are sent to a military re-education camp in northwest China. They do not return to Beijing until after the death of Mao in 1976.
This is one of a number of semi-autobiographical artworks made by Ai Weiwei. It is called Remains, 2015, and features porcelain casts of a skull and a tibia excavated at the site of a labour camp that operated during Mao Zedong’s reign.

Remains, 2015, Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio. Image courtesy Ai Weiwei Studio. © Ai Weiwei.
Remains, 2015, Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio
Co-founds Stars group
After studying at the Beijing Film Academy Ai Weiwei joins Stars group, an avant-garde art collective. In September Stars stage an exhibition on the railings outside the China Art Gallery. When the works are forcibly removed, they march in protest and as a result are granted permission to exhibit. The exhibition is attended by 80,000 people.
Moves to New York City
Facing harsh official criticism and political pressure, the Stars group disbands and several of the artists leave China. In New York Ai Weiwei documents his life in exile in thousands of photographs. Many depict his circle of friends who are now respected figures in China, including the composer Tan Dun, the conductor Hu Yongyan, and the filmmaker Chen Kaige. He also meets and becomes friends with Allen Ginsberg.

Watch Ai Weiwei reminiscing about his time in New York City.
Returns to Beijing
He begins making work that openly criticises the Chinese government. In one particular performance piece he causes controversy when he photographs himself smashing a Han Dynasty Urn. Ai Weiwei, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995
Ai Weiwei, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995 © Ai Weiwei, courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio
Starts blogging on Sina Weibo
The blog, which documents his life, his art and his political views attracts seven million readers. The site is shut down in 2008 after Ai Weiwei uses it as a platform to criticise corrupt government officials in the building of badly constructed schools in Sichuan. These schools collapsed during the 2008 earthquake killing hundreds of children. Ai Weiwei, Straight, 2008–12
Straight, 2008 features 90 tons of steel reinforcing rods straightened by hand and laid out like a dense carpet on the floor. The artist recovered the rods from the wreckage of schools in Sichuan following the earthquake.

Ai Weiwei, Straight, 2008–12 © Ai Weiwei, courtesy of Ai Weiwei
Publicly criticises Beijing’s Olympic Games
Writing in The Guardian, Ai Weiwei says he regrets being part of the commissioning process to conceive the National Stadium, known as the Bird’s Nest.
Sunflower Seeds
In October he unveils his commission for the Unilever Series at Tate Modern. The work consists of millions of porcelain seeds made in the workshops of Jingdezhen, a town once famous for its porcelain and now struggling to find its place in the modern world. Ai Weiwei shows what can be done to help communities like Jingdezhen through art.

Watch Tate’s film about the making of Sunflower Seeds.

Kui Hua Zi (Sunflower Seeds) by Ai Weiwei, 2010 © Ai Weiwei

Watch Tate’s film about the making of Sunflower Seeds.
Kui Hua Zi (Sunflower Seeds) by Ai Weiwei
Kui Hua Zi (Sunflower Seeds) by Ai Weiwei
Kui Hua Zi (Sunflower Seeds) by Ai Weiwei
Kui Hua Zi (Sunflower Seeds) by Ai Weiwei

Kui Hua Zi (Sunflower Seeds) by Ai Weiwei, 2010 © Ai Weiwei
Arrested at Beijing Airport
Ai Weiwei spends 81 days in detention and his passport is confiscated for alleged ‘economic crimes’. The US, European Union and global arts community protest against his arrest. The following year he uploads Grass Mud Horse Style, a parody of K-pop Psy’s video of his global hit, Gangnam Style. It depicts the defiant artist performing the horse-riding dance and waving handcuffs above his head.

Watch Ai Weiwei and his studio collaborators do Gangnam Style.
Travel ban lifted
After four years his passport is returned to him by the Chinese authorities and he is able to travel again in time for his retrospective at the Royal Academy. This doesn’t stop the British government embarrassing itself by only issuing him with a 20-day visa rather than the six-month one as requested. The British authorities claim this is because the artist did not declare a criminal conviction. Despite his detainment, Ai Weiwei has never been charged or convicted of any crime in China.

Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy is on from 19 September until 13 December, reduced price with a National Art Pass.