Born in Beijing in 1957, he studied film before moving to New York, where he lived from 1981 to 1993, enrolling at Parsons School of Design. On his return to Beijing, he found a country changed almost beyond recognition, in which economic reform and rapid urbanisation were accompanied by massive corruption and human rights violations. Ai’s criticism of Chinese society has brought him into conflict with authorities, but his solo exhibitions worldwide - championing freedom of expression – open regardless.
For his latest show at the Royal Academy – he was made Honorary Academician in 2011 – he has continued to work with highly skilled craftsmen and traditional materials. In the manner of Marcel Duchamp’s readymades, he recycles historical materials ruthlessly removed from their original context during and after the Cultural Revolution, whether in the form of architectural salvage or Han Dynasty pots, as seen in his Coloured vases – Neolithic ceramics dipped in paint.
The once ubiquitous Shanghai Forever brand of bikes are stuck to form stainless-steel sculptures, reflecting on China’s polluting car culture. Some of his more politically pointed works on show include his CCTV Surveillance Camera and Video Recorder carved in marble.
As this retrospective shows, Ai’s works continue to push the boundaries of creativity, and as of July this year, the artist had his passport returned to him, so he will be able to travel for the first time since 2011 – marking a new wave of freedom. ‘Ai Weiwei’ is at the Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, W1, 19 September – December 13;