Ai Weiwei is celebrated at the Royal Academy of Arts from 19 September, in a show that promises to be autumn’s biggest exhibition. Here are five things you need to know about the controversial Chinese artist
1 – His father was a famous poet
Ai Weiwei’s father was Ai Qing, one of China’s greatest modern poets. In 1958, when Weiwei was a year old, the family was exiled from Beijing to a military re-education camp on the edge of the Gobi desert in northwest China. Qing was forced to clean the village’s communal toilets throughout his fifties and sixties. Ai commemorates his father and others who suffered under Mao’s Cultural Revolution in this Royal Academy exhibition, Remains, which replicates the bones of an unknown intellectual who died in a labour camp uncovered in a secret archaeological dig. When leader Mao Zedong died in 1976 the family returned to Beijing, where Weiwei went to film school two years later. He travelled to New York as an art student in 1981, earning money playing blackjack and returning when his father became ill in 1993.
2 – He was imprisoned for 81 days
In April 2011, Ai was arrested and held for 81 days, allegedly for tax evasion but most likely because of his political activism. On his release he was presented with a demand for more than 12 million yuan (more than £1m), much of which was raised through an online loan campaign. Ai wrote a promissory note for each donation he received, commemorated in the work IOU Wallpaper. He cannot leave the country (until his planned visit to London) and remains under state surveillance – there are at least 20 cameras trained on his compound, each one marked with a red lantern attached by Ai.
3 – He is a social media star
In 2005, Ai began posting on Sina Weibo, one of China’s biggest social media websites. After four years his blog was shut down due to his outspoken views (his name is now a banned search term on the site). He turned to Twitter (he tweets at @aiww) where he originally posted in Mandarin but now mainly retweets other comments; another, unconnected, account – @aiwwenglish – into English. He’s also prolific on Instagram – @aiww – posting pictures of his son, visitors to his studio and street scenes. Ai is a heavy-metal musician in his own right, appearing on the cover of Dazed magazine in 2011.
4 – He draws inspiration from hundreds of years of Chinese culture
The Royal Academy’s exhibition covers the artist’s work since his return to China in 1993, when Ai embarked on a number of pieces made from period furniture, Qing dynasty (1644-1912) temples and other buildings that were being destroyed to make way for new developments. One of the most important artworks of the series – Table and Pillar (2002) – is included in the RA exhibition. “I like the language he uses locating old furniture, architectural salvage, ceramics…” says the show’s co-curator Adrian Locke. "China is, of course, familiar for its porcelain and jade, and he uses them in a new way that links past and present." One of Ai’s best-known works, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995), is a deliberately provocative act referencing the destruction caused first by Mao’s Cultural Revolution and now through rapid urban development.
5 – This is the biggest show of his work to take place in the UK
In 2010, Ai filled Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall space with millions of handmade porcelain sunflower seeds. Later he teamed up with Swiss architects Herzog & De Meuron (with whom he had also worked on the Bird’s Nest stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics) for the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion in 2012. But the Royal Academy exhibition is his most important show in the UK so far. ‘The British public hasn’t seen that many of his major works, so this should be a revelation,’ co-curator Adrian Locke promises. It features important pieces from the past 20 years, both large and small, including many favourites and others that have rarely been exhibited, alongside some site-specific works.
Ai Weiwei’s exhibition is held at the Royal Academy of Arts from 19 September to 13 December. Book tickets here.
See more London exhibitions here.