One of Ai Weiwei’s companies is titled Fake, and the themes of his work often circle around questions of authenticity, value, and their construction and destruction. In a celebrated 1995 performance piece, he smashed priceless porcelain vases to draw attention to the orchestrated vandalism of the Cultural Revolution; he has also reassembled antique furniture into non-functional “sculptures” and painted commercial logos on ancient pots. Oil Spill (2006) and Sunflower Seeds (2010) are made from porcelain, which Europeans identified so closely with China that they called it by that country’s name. Both works were made by craftsmen in the ancient porcelain capital of Jingdezhen. The 500-kg pile of hand-painted seeds (precursor of the seed carpet shown in London’s Tate Modern in 2010) is a reminder of a time when Chinese people were urged to turn their faces to the “sun” of Mao—who mired them in such abject poverty that sunflower seeds were regarded as a treat.
“Exhibiting art in museums isn’t very interesting,” Ai Weiwei has said. “Art is connected to our lives. Our lives are political, so it becomes political.” It is not his art but his disputatious relationship with the authorities—and his early adoption of the Internet and Twitter—that has made him a darling of the Western media. A frequent critic of the Chinese regime (“They are the No. 1 terrorists. They raped this nation’s ideology and thinking for 60 years,” he has said), Ai Weiwei is also a wealthy businessman. In 2011 he was convicted of evading taxes on a grand scale, spent almost three months in jail, and now faces $2.4 million in back taxes and fines. As of September 2012, he was appealing the charges, which he dismissed as “fabrications”. (Photo by Gao Yuan)