Since his initial return to Beijing in the early 90s, freedom of speech and information has been key to Ai’s artistic identity. One of his first pieces that he began upon his arrival was The Black Cover Book (1994), a collection of contemporary Chinese artist’s work along with banned writings by famous western artists like Warhol and Duchamp. Ai worked in secret to publish three thousand copies of the book, copies which were discretely distributed among members of the Beijing artist community. After the success of the first book, he released The White Cover Book (1995) and The Grey Cover Book (1997). More currently, instead of illegal book publishing, Ai uses his own personal internet server to illegally access and use Twitter, a site banned by the Chinese government.
Ai’s fierce advocacy for freedom of speech and information, have now become global issues due to leaked information that exposed the United State’s internet and phone surveillance programs. Weiwei’s piece Surveillance (2010) uses marble taken from Ming dynasty quarries to construct sculptures of modern day surveillance cameras used by the Chinese government. Ai says that these kinds of camera appear “all around” and “outside of the homes of [his] relatives” (qtd. in Without Fear or Favor). By using a material seeped in the history of powerful dynasties, Weiwei is relating his challenges to the historical struggles of artists and intellectuals who have faced similar oppression and monitoring from powerful regimes throughout Chinese history.
Ai, however, faces these hardships with good humor. When the government destroyed his studio during his imprisonment in 2011, Ai gathered pieces of rubble from the site and arranged them into a sculpture called A Souvenir From Shanghai (2012). Made from traditionally carved wood with the help of local craftsmen, the sculpture mocked the effort to silent his voice. In fact, Ai could even make art out of their attempted erasure.