Ai Weiwei was born in Beijing in 1957. His father, Ai Qing, was a prominent poet who, only a year after Weiwei’s birth, was exiled, along with the rest of his family, to Xinjiang province. This persecution was a part of Mao’s cultural revolution, and the Anti-Rightist movement that targeted intellectuals and anti-revolutionaries. Ai’s family was placed in an internment camp and Ai Qing was forced to work “trimming trees, cleaning lavatories, and other menial tasks” (pg 10, According to What?).Work that was considered to be the “most insulting and unbearable work” (Weiwei qtd. in Without Fear or Favor)
Despite Ai Qing’s initial loyalty to Mao, earlier in the revolution Qing worked as a literary advisor for the leader and even wrote poetry praising him, he was later exiled after publishing a poem that was critical of Mao’s treatment of historically underprivileged groups. Despite the exile, Weiwei credits his father with the development of his artistic lens, “he created a lot of mental space for us. It was another world” (pg 10, According to What?). Weiwei, continuing in the footsteps of his father, is still combatting censorship by the Chinese government that aims to quiet political opposition and prevent freedom of communication among its citizens.
By 1981, Weiwei had completed film school in Beijing and decided to move to New York City. Many of Ai’s more conceptual references and contemporary tendencies come from his time in the United States, photographing the Chinese exile experience, and witnessing the work of artists like Sol Lewitt, Andy Warhol, Marcel Duchamp, and Donald Judd. All artists who he references in works like Coca Cola Vases (2015), A Ton of Tea (2007), and Duchamp, Sunflower Seeds (1983).
After the Tiananmen square massacre in 1989, Ai was drawn back to China because of a lull in the artistic activity in Beijing. Ai returned to Beijing and began illegally publishing banned artistic materials. This return marked the beginning of a focused, yet playful mission to promote freedom of speech and freedom of information among fellow Chinese citizens.