Ai Weiwei is one of China’s most prolific and provocative contemporary artists.These works spotlight issues of freedom of expression, as well as individual and human rights both in China and globally. Many use minimal forms and methods, while others manipulate traditional furniture, ancient pottery, and daily objects in ways that question cultural values and challenge political authority. Ai is best known for projects such as his collaboration with Herzog & de Meuron on the 2008 Beijing Olympic National Stadium, as well as his embrace of the Internet and social media as a platform for his activism. Despite his arrest and eighty-one-day detention in 2011, Ai has continued to create art that transcends dualities between East and West.
This installation is part of a series of bicycle works by Ai recalling his childhood. He made the bicycles from stainless steel and omitted the handlebars and seat to create a minimal approach in both materials and form to suggest that in China the individual is often undervalued and seen only as part of the whole.
When Ai visited the site of the 2008 earthquake in China’s Sichuan Province, he was horrified by the shoddy “tofu-dreg” construction of the schools that had collapsed in the quake and killed thousands of children. Outraged by the government’s inaction to identify those who died, he started his Citizens’ Investigation to compile a list of all the children had perished.
In He Xie, (installation above) Ai metaphorically represents the restriction of individual expression and freedom of speech in Chinese society. He xie, literally “river crab,” also sounds like the word for “harmonious,” which is part of the Chinese Communist Party slogan “The realization of a harmonious society.” He xie has thus come to refer to online censorship and the restriction of individual freedom of expression in Chinese society.
In November 2010, Chinese authorities announced that Ai’s new studio in Shanghai would be demolished. In response, Ai invited guests via Twitter to a feast of ten thousand river crabs to protest the government’s control of information. Placed under house arrest for his actions, he was unable to attend his own feast.