Artist and social activist, prominent in reconnecting art with issues of social and cultural value
The past 12 months has seen Ai settle into life as an exile. Ai being Ai, however, living in Berlin and occupying a visiting professorship at the city’s Universität der Künste hasn’t meant an existence of quiet academia since the Chinese authorities returned his passport in 2015, but one typified by the media-grabbing activism for which the artist is renowned. Not that this is without its controversy, of course: eyes were raised when the artist posed as Alan Kurdi, the young refugee whose body washed up on the shore of a Turkish beach near Bodrum. Yet Ai’s refusal to let his fans forget this unfolding political and human tragedy has been far from superficial or fleeting (as anyone who has seen the artist’s Instagram posts of his many visits to refugee camps all along the Mediterranean coast can vouch for). Nor was Ai any less vocal when Chinese politics intervened in his inclusion in the inaugural Yinchuan Biennale (curated by Bose Krishnamachari) and his invitation was rescinded, or when Lego blocked Ai’s bulk order of its iconic bricks for an installation at the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia, worried that its toys would be used for ‘political statements’ (the brand later claimed the refusal was a mistake and supplied the artist with the bricks requested). Oh, yes – Ai’s actual art making! It’s easy to forget among the headline-grabbing political controversies. This year saw the usual round of international museum shows, notably all Western, including solo exhibitions at Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; National Gallery of Prague and 21er Haus, Vienna.