Artist and social activist, prominent in reconnecting art with issues of social and cultural value
Very few artists reach celebrity status. For the few who do achieve the dubious heights of fame, most are content that their image helps the art-market dollars roll in (or that it be used to promote trainers: cf Marina Abramović’s Work Relation, 2014). For Ai, however, his proﬁle has long been used to highlight various social injustices suffered by Chinese citizens – most notably the nearly 5,000 children reportedly killed during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake as a result of badly built school buildings. Banned from travelling for over four years – having had his passport conﬁscated following his 2011 arrest on tax evasion and other charges, widely reported to be politically motivated – the big news of 2015 was that Ai got his passport back. His ﬁrst overseas trip (ﬁrst stop Berlin, where he has a son, a studio and a guest professorship) was almost curtailed after the UK visa authorities initially denied him permission to stay long enough to both install and be present for the opening of his solo show at London’s Royal Academy. Following protests, the British home secretary intervened. Now that’s power right there.
Once in Britain, the artist wasn’t shy, going on a much-publicised walk through London with fellow Lisson Gallery banner-waver Anish Kapoor: a symbolic act, the two artists said, to highlight Europe’s refugee crisis. Alongside all this worthy campaigning, Ai’s actual art often fades from view; indeed, some critics are quick to point out that when removed from the emotive narratives that inform it, and from the artist’s own biography, the work itself does not amount to much. Yet there are more than enough museum directors, curators and art lovers who would strongly disagree, ﬁnding in Ai an icon of what good art can do in the world.