Artist and activist, prominent in reconnecting art with flashpoint social and political issues
This summer, when Beijing authorities began razing Ai’s studio and his assistants scrambled to remove his work, he went straight on Instagram to update his half-million followers. Aware of his sizeable audience, Ai is nowadays as much sociopolitical commentator as artist – his drone-assisted documentary on the migrant crisis, Human Flow (2017), was shortlisted for Best Documentary at this year’s Oscars – though he’s not neglecting his traditional broadcasting channel, art galleries. This autumn he debuted in Los Angeles with a trio of shows at venues including one run by Hollywood’s United Talent Agency (in whose design he had a hand); this installation, titled Cao/Humanity, centred on a lawn of marble blades of grass – typically late-Ai in being a master-crafted massing of individual units. Right now he seems at a crossroads, having recently decided to leave his adopted city of Berlin for upstate New York. At a moment when many people would like to leave America, Ai is returning: maybe he’s decided it needs him.