Ai Weiwei: According to What?

During my trip to Toronto, I caught wind of the Ai Weiwei exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario, and boy was I lucky!  Having lived in Toronto before moving to Los Angeles, I never visited the AGO, and Ai Weiwei’s exhibit was the perfect introduction.

Ai Weiwei was born 28 August 1957 in Bejing China, and most notably renowned for his political activism, expressed through his art, against the Chinese Government and its stance on democracy and human rights.

“Ai Weiwei is one of China’s most prolific and provocative contemporary artists. Through his art he advocates for freedom of expression and the value of individual lives and voices in a totalitarian state. After the earthquake in China’s Sichuan province in 2008 killed more than 5,000 children, he has become more outspoken in his criticism of the Chinese government. His political activism and controversial artworks have led to his arrest and the confiscation of his passport. He is currently not allowed to travel outside China and lives under surveillance in his Bejing studio.

In addition to working in a range of media from photography to sculpture to architecture, Ai Weiwei exploits the power of social media to make art and connect with the world.” 
– Courtesy of AGO

“According to What?”
The exhibit beings when you step up to the AGO.  Your eyes catch the huge image, introducing Ai Weiwei’s exhibit.  Titled “According to What?”  How compelling that statement truly is, and becomes more evident as we explore his pieces and history.  Weiwei forces the audience to think what s/he is looking at.  One of his artistic expression pieces, is a set of photography that he takes of his middle finger, “flipping off” key structures around the planet: The Coliseum, White House, Eiffel Tower, or Tiananmen Square.  One can argue that this is a symbol of perspective between a human hand (finger) and the object in question.  But I would venture deeper.  A statement is made.  We revere a construction or event on its surface level, but there is a double edge meaning to its existence.  Take the Coliseum for example.  A great piece of architecture left over from ancient Rome, one of the wonders of the world.  It signifies a time during the middle ages where rulers exhibited their strength and power as their trained gladiators fought to the death.  But it also shed the blood of many a human being, for the purpose of entertainment.  “According to What?” questions the person and the perspective they are viewing the piece.

As you go through the videos and images that we are sharing here at FVM Global, ask yourself “According to What?


1949: People’s Republic of China, led by Chairman Mao Zedong takes power. Chinese citizens look to Mao to bring reform after decades of war, upheaval and instability since the collapse of the dynasty rule in 1911.

1957: August 28: Ai Weiwei born in Bejing, China, to father Ai Qing, a poet and mother Gao Ying.

1958: Ai’s father declared an enemy of the state during the Anti-Rightist Movement, a campaign intended to identify critics of Mao’s government. Ai’s family exiled to a labour camp in northwest China.

1966-76: Mao launches Cultural Revolution to reinforce communist power. He destroys everything connected to religion, tradition, capitalism or Western society. Much of China’s cultural heritage is lost.

1976: The chaos of the Cultural Revolution ends with Mao’s death. Ai’s family returns to Bejing.

1978: Ai attends Bejing Film Academy. The following year he participates in exhibition with “The Stars,” China’s first group of avant-garde artists.

1981: Ai moves to the USA and attends Parsons The New School for Design in New York. Discovers Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns, who become his main artistic influences.

1989: June 4 Massacre in Tiananmen Square after China’s military leads violent crackdown against student-led demonstrations for equality and democracy. The incident crushes hopes of further political reform.

1993: Ai’s father was ill and Ai returns to China.

1994: Ai co-produces “The Black Cover Book“, introducing work by experimental Chinese artists and key Western art figures of the 1900s. He distributes 3,000 copies of the book, which has a major influence on China’s contemporary art world.

1997: Ai founds China Art Warehouse, a gallery that supports experimental Chinese art.

2000: Ai and Feng Boyi co-curate “Fuck Off“, a controversial exhibition at Shanghai’s Eastlink Gallery showcasing young Chinese artists. Exhibition opens at the same time as Shanghai Biennale and is shut down early by Shanghai police.

2007: Ai exhibits “Fairytale” at documenta 12 in Kassel, Germany.

2008: Ai collaborates with architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron on the Beijing NationalStadium known as the “Bird’s Nest,” for Summer Olympics. Ai later distances himself from the project and criticizes the government for presenting a false impression of progress to the world.

May 12: More than 5,000 children die when poorly constructed schoolhouses collapse in Sichuan earthquake. Ai becomes outraged after visiting the region. He uses social media to recruit volunteers for citizens’ investigation to compile full list of the victims’ names.

2009: May: Chinese authorities shut down Ai’s blog of social and political commentaries.

September: Ai and others detained in Sichuan Province to prevent them from attending trial of another activist investigating deaths of the child victims of the earthquake. Police assault Ai – he undergoes emergency brain surgery for a hemorrhage while installing “So Sorry” exhibition in Munich.

2010: November: Ai placed under house arrest in Bejing to prevent him from attending river-crab feast marking demolition of his Shanghai studio by Chinese authorities. Feast proceeds without Ai.

Ai travels to London England for the opening of his “Sunflower Seeds” exhibition at Tate Modern.

2011: April 3: Police secretly detain Ai at the Bejing airport while he tries to fly to Hong Kong. He is released on bail after 81 days in detention on fabricated charges of tax evasion. Authorities keep his passport, forbidding him from leaving China.

Kunsthaus Bregenz in Austria mounts a major exhibition of Ai’s work. The gallery uses the show as a way to build support for Ai, who remains unable to leave China.

2012: “Ai Weiwei: According to What?” opens at Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC. It is the first major North American survey of his work.

2013: June: “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads” installed at Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto.

Ai continues to live and work in Bejing. He is still without a passport, but his art continues to be exhibited worldwide, including major presentations at the Venice Biennale.

Ai Weiwei: Fun facts!

  • Ai prefers to design his artistic ideas, and leaves the contruction to other artists.
  • During Ai’s investigation of Sichuan Province earthquake, he was labeled an American spy.
  • Artistic Piece: Rebars from earthquake, they weigh in at 38 tons, takes about 70 hours to piece together and the floor beneath the rebars at the Art Gallery of Ontario has dropped 2mm since placement!

The world is changing. This is a fact. Artists work hard hoping to change it according to their own aspirations” – Ai Weiwei