Why is Ai Weiwei so famous

Artist, human rights activist, activist: Ai Weiwei is 60

Everything he tackles is big and striking. He doesn't want to mess with his art, he wants to mess with it. Many consider Ai Weiwei a "social conscience" because in his work he openly criticizes the regime and denounces corruption and injustice. At the moment he is worried about the fate of the refugees who are pouring into Europe by the hundreds of thousands. He even made a documentary about it: "Human Flow", which premieres at this year's Venice Film Festival in the race for the Golden Lion on the Lido.

The artist traveled around the globe for a year, speaking to people in 23 countries who had to leave their homes because of hunger and natural disasters, war and violence. Thousands of people have died in the Mediterranean in recent years, he says in the DW documentary "Ai Weiwei Drifting," which filmed his work for a year. It was both a tragedy and a crime what was going on. "I wanted to make it public and confront people in Germany and Europe with it so that they can see it right in front of their eyes and not just see it on television."

With his installation of life jackets, Ai Weiwei wants to commemorate the fate of drowned refugees

For Ai Weiwei, escape is a very personal issue. He knows from his own bitter experience what drives people to flee their homeland. Because of his political commitment, he was repeatedly subjected to reprisals in China. He was arrested, beaten and under house arrest.

State reprisals

Ai Weiwei suffered from the effects of the totalitarian government in China all his life. His father, the famous poet Ai Qing, who was once close to Mao Zedong, was dropped by the leader of the Communist Party in 1958. The Ai family was sent to a labor camp, where they lived in a pit. Ai Weiwei, who was born in Beijing on August 28, 1957, was only one year old at the time.

Ai Weiwei 1958 - already in exile as a child

While growing up, he witnessed the humiliation of his father, who was forced to clean the village toilet - a "re-education" measure. With the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, the political climate cooled and the Ai family was allowed to return to Beijing.

Ai Weiwei enrolled at the Beijing Film Academy at the age of 21. However, he lost interest in his studies and founded the radical artist group "Stars", including hanging posters critical of the regime on a wall that became known as the "Wall of Democracy". When the new Chinese head of state Deng Xiaoping decided to take action against the democracy movement and had its most prominent representative, Wei Jingsheng, arrested in 1979, the young artist quickly realized that he should leave the country.

From street painter to biennale artist

In 1981 Ai Weiwei moved to New York, where he enrolled at the Parsons School of Design. But the bustling cultural life on the streets and in the galleries of the East Village attracted him more than the courses in art history. After a short time he broke off his studies. He made friends with the beat poet Allen Ginsberg, and discovered the works of the artist Marcel Duchamps: "Through Duchamp I realized that being an artist has more to do with a certain lifestyle and an attitude than with the production of products." Ai once wrote.

Ai Weiwei in 1994 with artist friends in Beijing

In 1993, Ai Weiwei returned to China to live with his family. From this point on, his artistic work became more and more political. Uli Sigg, an avid collector of Chinese art and former ambassador of Switzerland in Beijing, made him known internationally. Sigg introduced Ai to the great curators of the art world. In 1999 Ai Weiwei was invited to the Venice Biennale. In Shanghai, China, he organized the "Fuck Off" exhibition with avant-garde artists in 2000 to protest against the 3rd Shanghai Biennale, which was also official: "Fuck Off" was ended by the police before the official end.

The fairy tale of the 1001 Chinese

Ai has never studied architecture, but after designing his studio complex in Beijing, he managed one of the most important architecture firms in China with his company FAKE-Design. He was even asked as a design consultant for the construction of the famous bird's nest stadium for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing - but then became a critic of the games.

Ai Weiwei's installations "Rooted upon" and "Fairytale" in the Munich exhibition "Ai Weiwei. So sorry"

As an artist, too, he has pushed the boundaries. When he was invited to the world art show documenta 12 in Kassel in 2007, he paid homage to the hometown of the Brothers Grimm with the "Fairytale" project, for which he had 1001 Chinese people brought to Kassel. At night they slept in a dormitory, during the day they explored the city and described their impressions as tourists in Kassel.

 @aiww on Twitter and Instagram

Before 2005, Ai Weiwei had never used a computer. But then he developed into a virtuoso social media user who digitally documented himself and his everyday life. He wrote about the Chinese authorities on his blogs, which were repeatedly censored and banned.

In 2009, Ai Weiwei was arrested and beaten by the police until he had a brain haemorrhage. He provoked the government by launching a thorough investigation into the victims of a deadly earthquake caused by botched construction in Sezuan. He came to the hospital in Munich and continued to work there on his exhibition "So Sorry" in the Haus der Kunst.

Under arrest

Back in Beijing, he was detained for 81 days in 2011. After his release, Ai Weiwei was under house arrest, his passport was confiscated and he was not allowed to leave the country for the next four years.

At the time, the artist and dissident received great support from Germany. Gallery owner and China expert Alexander Ochs as well as a group of Berlin friends started the campaign: "Freedom of travel for Ai Weiwei," which was signed by thousands of people in Germany. A second initiative followed later: "Pass for Ai Weiwei."

Berlin loves Ai Weiwei

He's finally got his passport back

When the artist was finally allowed to travel again in 2015, he went to Berlin and accepted a visiting professor at the University of the Arts. He has had a huge studio in the Pfefferberg cultural center for years alongside his Danish artist friend Olafur Eliasson. The German capital has done it to him: "Berlin, I Love You" is the name of one of his short films. It is dedicated to his then six-year-old son Ai Lao, whom the artist and his wife Lu Qing had sent to Germany a year earlier out of fear for their safety. He broadcast the Ode to Berlin via Skype from Berlin.

Famous, provocative and polarizing

Ai Weiwei has been in demand more than ever since he has lived in Germany. In 2015, the British art magazine "ArtReview" listed him as the most influential person in the art world in its annual ranking after the Swiss gallery owner couple Wirth.

His works polarize, because the line between Ai Weiwei's art and self-presentation is often fine. When he recreated the image of the drowned Syrian refugee boy Aylan on the beach in Lesbos, it was the height of bad taste for many. Ai Weiwei does not contest such criticism. He wants to remain uncomfortable and be politically alarmed. "I work for people, not for Western or Chinese people," is his credo. The artist will be 60 years old on August 28th.