By Deanna M. Ashley

More than a contemporary conceptual artist, Ai Weiwei, a native of Beijing, China, has used his art as a means of engaging the social consciousness of humanity through site-specific installations.

Many fans of his work in Austin, Texas are feigning over two recent outdoor installations. Ai’s, “Forever Bicycles,” appears to offer a nod to “Bicycle Wheel,” the 1913 kinetic work of another famed provocative artist, Marcel Duchamp. It is a large-scale installation of 1254 bicycles towering impressively along the Waller Creek Delta.


His cast sculpture, “Iron Tree Trunk” graces the lush grounds of The Contemporary’s Laguna Gloria. Standing 15 feet tall, the sculpture could initially be mistaken as a natural part of its surroundings, though upon further inspection, it is clear the piece has been altered by man. Ai was inspired by the Chinese tradition in which beautiful dried tree pieces are sold at market to display in the home, admired for their unique intricacies and meditative influence.

Ai studied animation at Beijing’s Film Academy where he founded an avant garde art group, STARS. He went on to study art at Parson’s School of Design in New York. He eventually lost interest in their conservative approach to teaching and earned a living by drawing street portraits instead. In 1993 his father became ill and he subsequently returned to China.

Son of Ai Qing, one of China’s finest poets, Ai is no stranger to the punishment that accompanies non-conformist expression. His father studied painting in Paris between the years of 1929 and 1932 where he developed a fondness for poetry. His poetry became imbued with social commentary, and in 1957, shortly after Ai’s birth, he was censored for his criticism of the Communist Party and sent into exile.

Qing eventually became Vice Chairman of the Chinese Writer’s Association in 1979, and was later named Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters by then President, François Mitterand in 1985. In this regard, being a non-conformist can be seen as practically part of Ai’s DNA. Parallels may certainly be drawn between using their art as a tool to reveal social oppression and initiate change through public awareness.

Ai WeiWei was one of the first artists to utilize social media outlets, such as Twitter, as a means of exposing oppression. When a shoddily constructed school crumbled in an earthquake in Sichuan, China in 2008, local authorities would not release the student names or calculate casualties. Ai and his team researched those who perished and released their names on his blog. This was the inspiration for his 2009 installation, “Remembering” at the Haus der Kunst in Munich. This work was made of 9,000 vivid backpacks, each symbolizing the life of a child lost in the natural disaster.


In April of 2011 Ai was detained while attempting to depart Beijing for Hong Kong, and was held in a tiny room supervised by Chinese military for nearly 3 months. His studio was later raided and bulldozed. Street art stencils popped up all over New York City declaring, “Where is my passport”, referring to the police’s confiscation of his passport, which was not returned to him until 4 years after his release. In December of 2011 he was named one of TIME magazine’s runners-up for Person of the Year.

Ai has collaborated with several architects from 2002 up to the present, which speaks to the progress of his grand outdoor installations. “Think Different (How to hang workers’ uniforms)” was part of Scandinavia’s 2015 public art show, OpenART, in the city of Örebro, Sweden. His exhibition draped rows of 375 uniforms over the street representing those worn by Chinese factory workers as a visual representation of the inhumane treatment and harsh conditions they endure.

Ai Weiwei’s creative motivation appears to spring from a visceral sense of social justice. His bold, outspoken, and superbly-crafted conceptual art has sprawled poetically against an international playing field and made its way to Texas. Perhaps a visit to Austin is becoming as motivated by contemporary art as it by live music, honky-tonks, technology, football, and BBQ.