Ai Weiwei

Strength, 2019

Ai Weiwei (Chinese, born 1957), Strength, 2019, cast iron, 70 1/2 x 76 3/8 x 88 5/8 inches. Courtesy of the Artist, Lisson Gallery, and neugerriemschneider.

Ai Weiwei (Chinese, born 1957), Strength, 2019, cast iron, 70 1/2 x 76 3/8 x 88 5/8 inches. Courtesy of the Artist, Lisson Gallery, and neugerriemschneider.

One of the leading artists of his generation, Ai Weiwei is an outspoken advocate for free expression, both in China and internationally. A global citizen, artist, and activist, Ai works in many media—installations, sculptures, films, and photographs—to create conceptual works addressing issues he believes are important. Among such works are early iconoclastic acts, as in his photographic series Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995); a later installation about the lives lost in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, Remembering (2009); and his documentary film on the global refugee crisis, Human Flow (2017).

Strength, from Ai's Roots sculpture series (2019), is cast in iron from a giant root of a pequi-vinagreiro tree (Caryocar edule Casar) that was found aboveground on the floor of the Bahian rainforest in Brazil. These endangered trees nearly went extinct over a century ago due to deforestation and Portuguese trade. Little remains of the great trees today but their discarded roots, some of which are over a thousand years old. Ai worked with local artisans and communities across Brazil to locate abandoned roots and trunks, which were then painstakingly molded, conjoined, and cast to create striking forms. The titles for the individual sculptures in this series were suggestions from the artist’s son, based on his personal obser­vations or connections made when they visited the tree roots together.

Ai Weiwei’s Roots are also about “uprootedness.” They refer to the ongoing plight of refugees worldwide; Indigenous communities affected by deforestation of their land; and of course Ai’s own arrest by Chinese authorities in 2011, and his peripatetic life after being allowed to leave in 2015. Ai’s use of cast iron covered in a patina of orange rust also alludes to ancient cultures and humanity’s first tools for tree felling and woodworking. Although the tree roots themselves were shaped by the soil and environment, Ai’s cast-iron roots are made by human hands, using a form of the ancient “lost-wax” technique, a method representing traditional processes and lifeways that have been forgotten, usurped, or upended, often as a result of Industrialization and modernization.

Born in 1957 in Beijing, Ai Weiwei currently lives and works in Portugal. He attended the Beijing Film Academy (Beijing Dianying Xueyuan) and later moved to New York, where he continued his studies at the Art Students League and the Parsons School of Design in the 1990s. Among his major solo exhibition venues are the Albertina Modern, Vienna, Austria (2022); Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge, UK (2022); Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Serralves, Porto, Portugal (2021); Cordoaria Nacional, Lisbon, Portugal (2021); Imperial War Museums, London, UK (2020); K20 K21 Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf, Germany (2019); OCA, São Paulo, Brazil (2018); CorpArtes, Santiago, Chile (2018); Mucem, Marseille, France (2018); Fundación PROA, Buenos Aires, Argentina (2017); Sakıp Sabancı Müzesi, Istanbul, Turkey (2017); Public Art Fund, New York City, USA (2017); Muze'on Yisrael / Israel Museum, Jerusalem, Israel (2017); Palazzo Strozzi, Florence, Italy (2016); 21er Haus, Vienna, Austria (2016); Helsinki Art Museum, Finland (2016); Royal Academy of Arts, London, UK (2015); Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, Germany (2014); Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indiana, USA (2013); Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden | Smithsonian, Washington, DC, USA (2012); Taipei Fine Arts Museum / Taipei Shili Meishuguan, Taiwan, ROC (2011); Tate Modern, London, UK (2010), and Haus der Kunst, Munich, Germany (2009).

Ai Weiwei has received numerous awards and honors, including the lifetime achievement award from the Chinese Contemporary Art Awards in 2008, and he was made Honorary Academician at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, in 2011. His human rights work has been recognized through the Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent in 2012 and Amnesty International’s Ambassador of Conscience Award in 2015. He is represented by Lisson Gallery and by neugerriemschneider.