Ai Weiwei’s eighty-day arrest in 2011 by the Chinese government over ‘tax fraud’ allegations, probably the event in his career that has brought him the most international attention, was not the end of government harassment for the artist. Following his arrest his passport was withheld since April 2011, only being returned in time for his exhibition “Ai Weiwei” at the Royal Academy of Art in 2015. Ai, however, remains fearless in his creation of political art and his eagerness to protest these unfair conditions. His 2015 piece Remains, a porcelain replica of “bones of an unknown intellectual who died of ill-treatment in a labor camp” (pg 53, Davies). This sculpture reflects and relates Weiwei’s current political position and persecution with the historical imprisonment of rightists and artists by the Chinese government. A history that Ai had witnessed first hand during the Cultural Revolution in China.
Weiwei also fuses more traditional political activism with sculptural art in his work Straight (2008-12). The undulating sculpture was made of stacked iron rebar collected from the rubble of an elementary school which had collapsed in an earthquake in Sichuan province. The building should have stood, but due to shoddy building practices allowed by corrupt politicians, the structure collapsed during the earthquake and killed more than five thousand children. The government refused to release the names of the students so Ai, working with local political activists, gathered the five thousand names of the kids by interviewing community members. A list of the names was displayed along with the iron rebar, a powerful statement against the political erasure of the victims lives, as well as a push for freedom of information.
For the most part, this same political perspective is present in most all of Ai’s art. Weiwei’s life has been so heavily and evidently impacted by politics that even his most private pieces aren’t without some sort of political commentary. Even Ai’s existence has become a political act.