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Ai Weiwei (b. 1957) is truly an artist for the twenty-first century. In his sculptures he refashions artefacts and antiques into surprising, sometimes monumental constructions such as Template (2007): hundreds of wooden doors and windows taken from demolished Ming and Qing dynasty temples and arranged into a massive outdoor sculpture.
As much as these materials look to the past, they also speak of the present, because never before (and probably never again) have they been available in such abundance. Like his benches carved from centuries-old temple beams, Template is a sly commentary on the speed with which China's building boom is obliterating its past. (When Template collapsed in a rainstorm two weeks after its unveiling at Documenta 12, the artist embraced its demise as a clever artistic twist.)
In China today, making art that's critical of current cultural and economic policies is not a particularly safe career move.
In stark contrast to the glass-and-steel high-rises going up around Beijing, the art galleries, ateliers and homes Ai designs are boxy and modest, made from brick and other vernacular materials. Their resolution of Eastern and Western styles is a fitting parallel to his antique readymade sculptures.
He has been described more than once as the Chinese Warhol, overseeing a factory-like studio (Fake) with dozens of assistants engaged in countless projects in a range of disciplines. And indeed his outsize public persona is an inseparable part of his art.
It should come as no surprise that when Herzog & de Meuron came to Beijing to conceive of a new stadium for the 2008 Olympics, Ai was the one who provided them with a design concept: an interlaced form based on the woven baskets his wife collects at local antique markets. At a time when the West is finally discovering Chinese contemporary art, Ai is one of the few to have transcended the label 'Chinese artist'.
In part thanks to his gallery Urs Meile (Lucerne and Beijing), Ai has won the support of strong European collectors. His work is increasingly being shown at major venues around the world (Kunsthalle Bern, Kunsthaus Graz, Tate Liverpool) and included in major international exhibitions (the Moscow Biennial, the Guangzhou Triennale, Documenta). A complex, multi-faceted artist, Ai is poised to make a deep impact on contemporary art far beyond China's borders. Ai Weiwei is represented by Galerie Urs Meile, Lucerne and Beijing.