Modern Art as Performance—Ai Weiwei’s Activism

Written by Alexa R. Peltier
Asian 356: Contemporary Chinese Performance Culture

Photographer, designer, architect, artist, blogger, dissident—those are just several of the titles that global figure Ai Weiwei has managed to gather throughout his career. I believe Ai Weiwei was best introduced in Ai Weiwei Spatial Matters, edited by himself and Anthony Pins:

Born the son of the revolutionary poet Ai Qing in 1957, Ai grew up in China’s far north-west desert under the harsh conditions of his father’s exile. At the end of the Cultural Revolution he returned to Beijing, only to relocate to New York City until 1993. On 3 April 2011, he was arrested in Beijing’s Capital International Airport for unsubstantiated ‘economic crimes’ and subsequently detained in an unknown location for eighty-one days [4].

Born to artists during a time of intense cultural oppression, there is little question on why Ai Weiwei has led a life of fierce activism. It is important to remember that Ai is not the first artist to convey charged political and cultural messages through art. However, he is one of the first artists to become globally recognized for those messages. Ai Weiwei has managed to continuously adapt with the times, and thus, he utilizes the globally interconnected interwebs as his platform to spread his art and therefore, his messages across a worldwide stage. This blog will argue that Ai Weiwei’s art is performance because it is dynamic and has the ability to challenge viewpoints. I believe this quote from Ai Weiwei’s Weiwei-isms showcases his passion for activism:

“My favorite word? It’s ‘act’ ” [3].

Not only does Ai Weiwei act through his artwork, but he also utilizes it to serve as a call to action for Chinese netizens to act by looking deeper into China’s political corruption and oppression of free speech. My goal through careful analysis of several of Ai’s works is to gain further understanding of his actions through art.

The Beijing National Stadium
I will begin with discussing Ai Weiwei’s role and criticisms in the architectural designing of the Beijing National Stadium. In an interview, Ai described the design concept for the National Stadium as coming from ‘emptiness’ [8]. I found his response rather strange in comparison to the claims that other articles had made regarding the inspiration for the stadium. Most articles that I have found state that the stadium was inspired by the study of ceramics and the need for China to have a stadium like no other. Ai’s claim takes a more metaphoric approach, and I think this disconnect between Ai and the media catalyzed his discontent with the Beijing Olympics altogether. Despite his contributions to the design of the iconic stadium, Ai quickly became disillusioned to the point of not attending the games nor wanting to even look at the Olympic stadium [7]. He saw the games as an intricately fabricated facade that China was putting on for the world to view. Ai also criticized that while the games boasted ‘One China. One World.’, the people who actually represented China, the average citizens, were not invited.

Continuing on, I found Ai’s photography on the progress of the stadium to be compelling. The image that is constantly pushed to the forefront of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games is of the iconic Beijing National Stadium.


Bird’s Nest – The National Stadium of China which, built for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, was co-designed by Ai Weiwei.

One of Ai Weiwei’s photographic series chronicles a twenty-four hour period of construction on the stadium. His series zooms in on a single day in the time of construction, and in doing so, he creates the illusion that little progress has been made.

Snapshot of the unfinished Beijing Olympic Stadium

Snapshot of the unfinished Beijing Olympic Stadium

I think these photos show an almost vulnerable side to this iconic stadium. In the media, the ‘bird’s nest’ is always portrayed in its totality and flawless completeness. Ai’s photography removes the veil of seeming perfection and illustrates that progress is not made in a moment but in a series of moments. Along with this series, Ai also photographed different aspects of the stadium during its time of construction. At first glance, these photos look to be just of the stadium’s progress, but under further inspection, the viewer can see the faint orange safety helmets of construction workers. Ai’s photography of the Beijing National Stadium focuses on only the stadium much like how the Chinese government does. The creation of this visual metaphor reinforces the state’s prioritization of its ‘image’ over its people. During this time, many migrant construction workers were lured to leave their homes at the prospect of advancing their well being, but instead, they were made to work for low wages. In this series, Ai uses his influence to call upon the marginalization and exploitation of migrant workers due to the “false-promise of China’s modernization” [4]. The exploitation of migrant workers was and is not a problem new to China, yet this exploitation creates even more of an issue when a gilded image of China is continuously being broadcasted to the world. Recalling his thoughts on the Beijing Olympics, Ai states: “My memory of the Beijing Olympics has not changed. It is a fake smile, an elaborate costume party with the sole intention of glorifying the country” [6]. Through his art and his words, I believe that Ai is challenging this by illuminating the facade of perfection of the Beijing Olympic Stadium and furthermore, the Olympics as a whole.

In a similar fashion, another contemporary and controversial Chinese artist was responsible for an important part of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Film director, writer, producer and actor, Zhang Yimou is a prominent figure in the performance world both domestically and globally. He has won numerous awards, and his most popular works include but are not limited to Hero and House of Flying Daggers. Another relevant fact to note is that his films are often praised for their signature use of rich colors and vivid presentations (Zhang Yimou Student Presentation). Even with his success, some of his later films were not as well received. The films were criticized for their historical inaccuracies and use of exotic Chinese stereotypes. These criticisms later led to several of his works being banned from showing in China [9]. Many aspects in Zhang Yimou’s life parallel Ai Weiwei’s. As stated in the Introduction, Ai grew up during a time of cultural oppression in exile. Similar in age, Zhang also grew up during this time and “had done farming and manual labor for seven years during the Cultural Revolution” [9]. Like Ai Weiwei, Zhang Yimou also gained the image of ‘dissident artist’, and this similarity continues in that Zhang was asked to play the major role of directing and choreographing the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics. I find it interesting that two controversial artists were chosen to hold two major roles for the games. Maybe there was more to gain than to lose by choosing these artists to represent China in the government’s eyes, but no one can say for sure. What I do know is that both of these artists are praised and criticized for their constant pushing of boundaries through performance.

“So Sorry”
Next, I will look into one of Ai Weiwei’s documentaries, “So Sorry”. This hour-long documentary is mostly filmed on a handheld camera, and it follows Ai after the catastrophic 2008 Sichuan earthquake [11]. The video shows Ai’s investigations into the earthquake, his work on the memorial in Germany, and the consequences of his assault.

Like many of China’s citizens during the time after the earthquake, Ai was outraged at the tragic deaths of thousands and more specifically those of school children. Many argued that these deaths of so many innocents could have been prevented, and they claimed that government corruption led to the shoddy construction of the schools. The government, on the other hand, denied these claims and stated that although tragic, the earthquake’s magnitude was the cause of the fatalities. The documentary illustrates Ai’s persistence to find the names of those lost and point out the corruption of the government.

Continuing on, the documentary later shows Ai Weiwei’s arrival in Munich for his installation of his “So Sorry” exhibition. Before arriving, Ai personally talked with many of the parents of the children that lost their lives in the earthquake. “Remembering” was arguably the most impactful piece that resulted from those talks. The piece was composed of nine-thousand children’s backpacks to form the sentence, “She lived happily for seven years in this world”, which was a direct quote from a grieving mother shown in the documentary.

Ai Weiwei, Remembering, 2009, backpacks on the facade of the Haus der Kunst

Remembering – Backpacks on the facade of the Haus der Kunst. English translation: “She lived happily for seven years in this world.”

The following quote from the book, So Sorry, explains his choice of materials and his motivation to create the piece:

The idea to use backpacks came from my visit to Sichuan after the earthquake in May 2008. During the earthquake many schools collapsed. Thousands of young students lost their lives, and you could see bags and study materials everywhere. Then you realize individual life, media, and the lives of the students are serving very different purposes. The lives of the students disappeared within the state propaganda, and very soon everybody will forget everything [1].

Because of the mural-like nature of “Remembering” and its large scale, many people had the opportunity to interact with and see the piece as they were walking by. This artwork also gained international attention as it was covered by journalists and social media users. Through this piece, Ai Weiwei was able to be the voice for the voiceless. He was able to memorialize the loss of many, and his continued efforts worked to ensure that their memories would not be forgotten. Furthermore, the aspect that makes his artwork performance is that it demands attention. He not only calls for the recognition of the horrific tragedy that occurred in the earthquake, but he also highlights the individual losses that the affected families had to encounter. His performance plays across a global stage as it ignites discussion and investigation into the causes of the catastrophic event.

Yet gain, Ai Weiwei provides insight into the corruption of the government as he documented his assault by police and its aftermath in the documentary. The video shows a dark room as officers break in and assault Ai. The viewer later learns that Ai has been suffering from dizziness and pain that ultimately lands him in a hospital in Germany. Found to have internal bleeding in his head, surgery immediately takes place. After his surgery, Ai is seen in as decent of spirits as he could be at the time, and he pulls out his camera to take photographs of his injuries to post to his blog. In several of these pictures, Ai is flipping off the camera with his head bandaged.

Ai Weiwei taking a selfie in hospital after being beaten by police in 2009

Ai Weiwei taking a selfie in a hospital after being beaten by police in 2009

The use of this obscene hand gesture is common in Ai’s photos. Through this, he conveys his contempt for monuments, material things, and in this case, the corruption of government. Yet again, Ai calls upon his blog followers and netizens to see the corruption that led to his assault. The ‘in your face’ bluntness of his photos showcase his extreme contempt of the actions of the government, and his large following on social media allows for this message to spread quickly.

Sunflower Seeds
Yet another famous work of dissident artist, Ai Weiwei, is his piece titled Sunflower Seeds which was part of the The Unilever Series in 2010. This piece is composed of over one hundred million porcelain sunflower seeds that cover a seemingly infinite landscape. It is interesting to note that every seed is individually crafted by artisans from the Chinese city of Jingdezhen [10]. The process to create so many of the unique porcelain seeds was composed of twenty to thirty steps, and preparation began two and a half years prior to the exhibition [5]. In addition, the use of porcelain to create the particles of this piece is important because of its deep, cultural roots in China.


Sunflower Seeds – Ai Weiwei holds some of his ceramic sunflower seeds from his Unilever installation ‘Sunflower Seeds’.

In this piece, Ai takes less of a political approach and more of a social one. He poses important questions that transcend cultural boundaries. An article that offers a description of the piece states some of the questions that it asks: “What does it mean to be an individual in today’s society? Are we insignificant or powerless unless we act together? What do our increasing desires, materialism and number mean for society, the environment and the future?” [10]. Ai asks these broad yet universally understood questions in hopes not for straight answers but instead, to generate discussion among people. At one point in time, viewers were encouraged to engage with the art by walking across the sunflower seed landscape. In an interview with Ai Weiwei, he explains how his audience is the everyday person who may not usually understand art [10]. This engagement with the piece creates an experience that is not unlike that of performance. Movement takes place as the audience engages with the piece; the individual seeds shift from the weight and more fall to fill in the gaps. Because of this and more, Sunflower Seeds is dynamic artwork and therefore, performance.

The Three Types of Performance and Ai Weiwei’s Art
Relating his art and performance to the class, I believe that Ai Weiwei utilized all three types of performance in his pieces: mimesis, poiesis, and kinesis [12]. More specifically, he utilized the concept of mimesis in his Beijing Olympic Stadium series. Through photography, he captured a moment in time and by extension, his art imitated how the stadium looked at that moment. Furthermore, this piece acted in a way that deliberately highlighted the lack of progress in the construction of the stadium and in the fight for sociopolitical change. Next, Ai utilized the concept of poiesis in his “So Sorry” piece, Remembering. He used backpacks to form a mural in efforts to remember the children lost in the earthquake. Through this action, he created a message that changed the way the world was informed of the tragedy that individual families were facing. Finally, Ai Weiwei utilized the concept of kinesis in his Sunflower Seeds exhibition. Instead of using real sunflower seeds, he had over one hundred million of them handcrafted. This choice was intentional and innovative in that he chose a material (porcelain) that had a deeply rooted significance in Chinese culture while at the same time highlighting the idea of mass production and materialism. Furthermore, his intent to allow the audience to engage with his art was innovative in that it further blurred the line between art and performance. I argue that it is definitely possible to find all three aspects of performance in all of his pieces, but I have highlighted the more obvious ones in attempts to further assert that Ai Weiwei’s artwork is indeed performance.

All in all, I firmly believe that Ai Weiwei’s ability to create dynamic art that ignites interaction and conversation qualifies his work as performance. First, through his intentional documentation of the construction of the stadium, Ai illuminated the facade of perfection of the Olympics. Furthermore, this piece can be seen as a metaphor for the lack of sociopolitical progress in China due to the government’s oppression. Next, Ai Weiwei’s documentary “So Sorry”, addressed his contempt of the government due to its corruption. The backpack mural was able to convey an individual message that spoke for thousands of Chinese citizens that lost loved ones in the earthquake, and this is important because their grievances were continuously being silenced through the government’s attempts to veil their mistakes. In addition, his documentation of his injuries further illuminated the corrupt nature of the government that led to his assault. Finally, Ai’s Sunflower Seeds exhibition interacted even more so with the everyday citizen by calling on them to think about what their purpose as an individual in society is. This universal concept is extremely important in China specifically as the country is currently in a state of rapid industrialization and transition from a communist society to a more capitalist-based society. The purpose of this blog was to educate others and myself on Ai’s works and his impact through them. Ai Weiwei’s multimedia artwork crosses boundaries and highlights important sociopolitical issues in modern China. Furthermore, his art serves as performance because of its unique ability to address these issues and ignite conversations on an international stage: the Internet. With all of this in mind, I will leave the reader with this famous quote from Ai Weiwei: “Everything is art. Everything is politics” [1], and furthermore,  Everything is performance.


[1] Ai, Weiwei, and Mark Siemons. Ai Weiwei: So Sorry. Munich: Prestel, 2009. Print.

[2] Ai, Weiwei, and Lee Ambrozy. Ai Weiwei’s Blog: Writings, Interviews, and Digital Rants, 2006-2009. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2011. Print.

[3] Ai, Weiwei, and Larry Warsh. Weiwei-isms. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2012. Print.

[4] Ai, Weiwei, and Anthony Pins. Ai Weiwei: Spatial Matters: Art, Architecture, Activism. London: Tate, 2014. Print.

[5] Lu, Carol Yinghua, and Marko Daniel. Ai Weiwei: Sunflower Seeds. London: Tate, 2010. Print.

[6] Ai, Weiwei. “Ai Weiwei: China Excluded Its People from the Olympics. London Is Different.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 25 July 2012. Web. 09 Apr. 2016.

[7] “China Artist Ai Weiwei Says He Regrets Designing Beijing Olympics Bird’s Nest.”The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 5 Mar. 2012. Web. 09 Apr. 2016.

[8] Zhang, Flora. “China’s Olympic Crossroads: Bird’s Nest Designer Ai Weiwei on Beijing’s ‘Pretend Smile'” Rings China’s Olympic Crossroads Birds Nest Designer Ai Weiwei on Beijings Pretend Smile Comments. 4 Aug. 2008. Web. 09 Apr. 2016.

[9] Brownell, Susan. Beijing’s Games: What the Olympics Mean to China. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008. Print.

[10] “The Unilever Series: Ai Weiwei: Sunflower Seeds | Tate.” The Unilever Series: Ai Weiwei: Sunflower Seeds | Tate. 2010. Web. 23 Apr. 2016.

[11] Ai, Weiwei. “So Sorry” Ai Weiwei. 2009. Web. 23 Apr. 2016.

[12] Bell, Elizabeth. Theories of Performance. Los Angeles: Sage Publications, 2008. Print.