Ai Weiwei

Selected Works

Marble Toilet Paper

14 x 14 x 13.5 cm.; 5 1/2 x 5 1/2 x 5 1/4 in.
Photo: Nicolas Brasseur

‘The whole world was in a panic at the beginning of the year 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Unnoticed, daily use objects, meaningless things, suddenly became scarce in all the supermarkets. Toilet paper became symbolic of this time of panic and distrust. It lays bare how fragile our so-called civilised progress actually is.

The work is part of a series of works in marble, items related to everyone yet ignored by the cultural landscape. These works include Mask, Surveillance Camera, and Tyre. Objects that are testaments to our time, evidence of how severe the situation is.’ 

Ai Weiwei Studio, 2021

I Can’t Breathe

Lego bricks
213 x 154 cm.; 91 x 60 5/8 in.
edition of 2, plus 1 AP
Photo: Nicolas Bresseur

‘On October 2, 2018, Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi Arabian citizen and journalist residing in the United States, was assassinated in the Saudi Embassy in Istanbul, Turkey. He had arranged an appointment at the embassy to obtain papers for his planned marriage to a Turkish citizen. Once inside, a struggle took place and he was never seen walking out of the embassy. The situation became an international scandal, highlighting the dangers faced by journalists and other practitioners of free speech. After months of intrigue on the world stage, the Saudi government admitted that Khashoggi was killed but laid the blame on so-called rogue actors, shielding the young Crown Prince suspected of ordering the assassination. Ai has taken the Saudi Arabian national flag as a readymade, replacing the shahada, or Islamic declaration of faith, with the last words believed to have been uttered by Khashoggi: "I can’t breathe."’ 

Ai Weiwei Studio, 2021

Porcelain Pillar with Refugee Motif

porcelain, cobalt oxide
312 x 51 cm.; 122 7/8 x 20 1/8 in.
Photo: Nicolas Brasseur

‘In 2015, while still unable to freely travel, Ai Weiwei became involved with the global refugee condition when the Ruya Foundation asked him to select drawings—made by refugees at the Shariya camp in northern Iraq—for a publication. Ai sent two studio assistants to the camp to conduct interviews and make portraits. Following the return of Ai’s passport, he relocated to Germany, then the largest receiving country of refugees in Europe. In December 2015, Ai travelled to the isle of Lesvos, with his son and girlfriend, and saw in person the incoming boats overfilled with the young, the old, and the infirm. He decided to become more involved, moving his studio to Lesvos and beginning to research and film what was happening. This year-long process culminated in the documentary feature, Human Flow. Many works came from the research, including works in blue-and-white (qinghua) porcelain. Ai established six motifs related to the refugee experience: War, Ruins, Journey, Crossing the Sea, Refugee Camps, Demonstrations. These themes reflect the various traumas defining the refugee condition today. In Porcelain Pillar with Refugee Motif, these six themes are depicted and placed within a historical context through the language of the blue-and-white porcelain and the works’ references to early Greek and Egyptian carvings and pottery. The work’s contemporary nature is revealed upon closer inspection, with the drawings taking inspiration from imagery sourced from the internet and the artist’s own experiences while filming Human Flow.’ 

Ai Weiwei Studio, 2021

Law of the Journey

reinforced PVC with aluminium frame
60 x 6 x 3 m.; 2362 1/4 x 236 1/4 x 118 1/8 in.
Installation view: 21st Biennale of Sydney, Cockatoo Island, 2018
Presentation at the 21st Biennale of Sydney was made possible with generous support from the Sherman Foundation
Courtesy the artist and neugerriemschneider, Berlin © Ai Weiwei
photo: Zan Wimberley

‘There’s no refugee crisis, but only human crisis… In dealing with refugees we’ve lost our very basic values.’ 

Ai Weiwei, 2017

Forever Bicycles

stainless steel bicycle frames
dimensions variable
Collection: The National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Loti & Victor Smorgon Fund, 2017 (2015.500)
Photo: NGV, Predrag Cancar

‘[For the first Forever Bicycles in 2003,] Ai Weiwei dismantled forty-two Forever brand bicycles and reassembled them into an interconnected circular form. The Forever Company began producing bicycles in Shanghai in 1940, and since that time has grown to be the leading manufacturer of bicycles in China. With the rapid modernization, the once familiar swarms of bicycles are disappearing from city streets and the name Forever has come to have an ironical ring to it. Nevertheless, many Chinese still cherish memories of their bicycles that will last ‘forever’. In this [series], the simple bicycle expands artist Marcel Duchamp’s concept of the Readymade to a monumental scale.’ 

Deborah E. Horowitz, ed., Ai Weiwei: According to What?, exh. cat., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C., and Mori Art Museum, Tokyo; Munich: Prestel,  2012, p. 60

Bicycle Chandelier

bicycles and glass crystal
500 x 430 x 430 cm.; 197 x 169 x 169 in.
Installation view: Ai Weiwei, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2015
Photo Royal Academy of Arts, London; photographer: Marcus J. Leith

‘Ai first began working with chandeliers in 2002: ‘I became interested in light as an object: both the object that gives off light, but also the form the light creates by itself in the illumination that it creates, and how illumination alters the surrounding environment.’ Ai's point of reference was the grand  chandelier of the vast Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square; he even sourced his crystals from the same place, in Zhejiang province.

At around the same time as he made his first chandelier work, Ai began creating sculptures and installations with bicycles. When collecting kindling as a boy, he used to ride a Forever bicycle, a Chinese brand, first produced in 1940, synonymous with the mass transportation of the urban workforce before cars became widely available. […]

The present work is the first in which Ai has combined the two ideas, creating a chandelier from bicycles. The white crystals are suspended from the rims of the bicycles' wheels and cascade down in illuminated circles to create this dramatic, site-specific sculptural installation.’ 

Adrian Locke, Ai Weiwei, exh. cat., London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2015, p. 221


steel reinforcing bars
1200 x 600 cm.; 472 1/2 x 236 1/4 in.
Installation view: Ai Weiwei, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2015
Photo Royal Academy of Arts, London; photographer: Marcus J. Leith

‘The works in rebar are the most difficult work, emotionally and physically, that I have ever made. It’s not really made by me - it’s made by history, individual stories, blood, tears, and labor. I just directed it into its current state. Most of the rebar we collected comes from one area, the Wenchaun Middle School, where over 1,000 students were killed. It took a long time to collect it, but after visiting the earthquake disaster zones and seeing ruins everywhere, I knew I needed to do something with them, to create something from this unspeakable situation. My first decision was to make all the rebar straight again, to make it look like it just came out of a factory and nothing ever happened. But of course something happened to those bars, and it took over 200 corrections to make each bar perfectly straight again.’ 

Ai Weiwei, quoted in Hans Werner Holzwarth, ed., Ai Weiwei, Cologne: Taschen, 2020, p. 474


0.7 x 26 x 8 cm.; 1/4 x 10 1/4 x 3 1/8 in.

‘Ai has produced a group of exquisite showcases mimicking those found either in museums or in boutiques in which desirable objects of high value are typically displayed. Here, however, he has subverted their anticipated contents. Despite the richness of their materials and their superb levels of craftsmanship, the works in these showcases refer to human-rights abuses, lack of freedom of speech and state censorship as well as more playful everyday objects such as sex toys and cosmetic containers. A pair of handcuffs carved from a single piece of jade refers to Ai’s secret detention in 2011.’ 

Adrian Locke, Ai Weiwei, exh. cat., London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2015, p. 197

He Xie

porcelain, 3,000 pieces
each: 5 x 25 x 10 cm.; 2 x 9 7/8 x 4 in.

‘In 1999 Ai built a studio-house of his own design at Caochangdi, which was then on the outskirts of Beijing. A number of artists and commercial galleries soon followed, turning this former agricultural village into a successful art district. In 2008 the municipal authorities in Shanghai, keen to replicate the success of Caochangdi, invited Ai to build a studio in Malu Town, Jiading district, at their cost.

As requested, Ai designed and arranged the construction of this new studio, which was completed in October 2010. The federal authorities then countermanded the agreement and ordered the building to be demolished on the pretext that Ai had not gained the requisite planning permission. On 7 November Ai placed an open invitation on the internet, encouraging supporters to attend a lunch during which they would feast on river crabs to commemorate both the completion of the new building and its imminent demolition. The Chinese word for river crabs, He Xie, is a homonym for ‘harmonious’, a word much used in government propaganda, but which has lately become internet slang for censorship.

Although Ai was placed under house arrest and prevented from being at the lunch in person, some 800 guests attended. The studio was razed to the ground on 11 January 2011.’ 

Adrian Locke, Ai Weiwei, exh. cat., London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2015, p. 143

Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads: Gold

gold-plated bronze sculpture on Huanghauli base, in 12 parts
overall display dimensions variable
Installation view: Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads: Gold, Portland Art Museum, Portland, 2015
Photo courtesy Portland Art Museum, Oregon

‘Ai Weiwei has reinterpreted the twelve bronze animal heads representing the Chinese zodiac that once stood in the gardens of the Yuan Ming Yuan (Garden of Perfect Brightness, Old Summer Palace), an imperial retreat in Beijing. Designed in 1700 by two Europeans Jesuits, the Zodiac heads originally functioned as a water clock fountain in Haiyan Tang. In 1860, the palace was ransacked by French and British troops and the statues were looted together with many other items. Only seven of the twelve figures have been traced today; they were all repatriated to China. The work addresses the debates of patriotism that follow questions of looting and repatriation, while continuing Ai's ongoing exploration of the authenticity of Chinese contemporary history and the value of artworks.’ 

Gereon Sievernich, ed., Ai Weiwei: Evidence, exh. cat., Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin; Munich: Prestel, 2014, p. 189

Sunflower Seeds

overall display dimensions variable
Installation view: The Unilever Series: Ai Weiwei Sunflower Seeds, 2010, the interior of the Turbine Hall, Tate Modern, London, 2010
© Ai Weiwei and Fake Studio / Photo © Tate
Photo: Tate

‘Each seed appears as this kind of beautiful gray, with the details of the white lines and the evenly shaded gray color. And each seed is individual yet at the same time looks identical to the others. When they’re accumulated in this large number, they become something else. People will try to understand how it’s been made and then what’s behind those numbers. You see it and you don’t see it because it disappears through this massiveness. But the meaning of the work has nothing at all to do with its appearance. And the understanding of the process also goes against its appearance. So what you see is not what it means. And if what you see is not what it means, then there’s a struggle there.’ 

Ai Weiwei, quoted in Hans Werner Holzwarth, ed., Ai Weiwei, Cologne: Taschen, 2020, p. 406


Installation view: Ai Weiwei, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2015
Photo Royal Academy of Arts, London; photographer: Marcus J. Leith

‘Ai Weiwei began his ongoing series Tree in 2009; the eight-part work in the Royal Academy’s Annenberg Courtyard is the largest to date. In order to create each element, Ai purchases parts of dead trees, collected on the mountains of southern China and sold in the markets of Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province, and has them transported to his studio in Beijing. During a process lasting several months, these disparate parts - whether root, trunk or branch - are painstakingly pieced together by skilled carpenters using traditional hidden mortise-and-tenon joints to create ‘complete’ trees. As Ai says, ‘It’s just like trying to imagine what the tree looked like.’ Industrial steel nuts and bolts are then added to reinforce the structure, apparently rendering these wooden joints superfluous, and provoking an uncomfortable tension between the visible and the invisible, the refined and the unrefined. These artificial constructions have been interpreted as a commentary on the Chinese nation, in which geographically and culturally diverse peoples have been brought together to form ‘One China’ in a state-sponsored policy aimed at protecting and promoting China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.’ 

Adrian Locke, Ai Weiwei, exh. cat., London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2015, p. 101


9,000 backpacks
9250 x 10605 x 10 cm.; 364 x 4175 x 4 in.
Installation view: The façade of the Haus Der Kunst, Munich, 2009

“The idea to use backpacks for Remembering came from my visit to Sichuan after the earthquake in May 2008. During the earthquake many schools collapsed. Thousands of young students lost their lives, and you could see bags and study material everywhere…The sentence on the backpacks is from a letter by the mother of a girl who died in the earthquake, who wrote: ‘She lived happily in this world for seven years’.”

Ai Weiwei, quoted in Hans Werner Holzwarth, ed., Ai Weiwei, Cologne: Taschen, 2020, p. 402

Cube Light

stainless steel, glass, electrical wiring, and lightbulbs
412.8 x 402 x 402 cm.; 162 1/2 x 158 1/4 x 158 1/4 in.
Collection: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C.
Joseph H. Hirshhorn Bequest and Purchase Funds, 2012
Cathy Carver. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

‘Begun in 2002, Ai’s celebrated chandelier series includes large-scale installations composed of thousands of glass crystals. Cube Light, a seminal piece in this body of work, extends Ai’s interest in re-examining Minimalist artistic strategies and, more specifically, in questioning the perceived solidity and exactitude of the iconic cube. The artist’s use of glass crystals exemplifies his interest in the manipulation of materials that interrogate conventions of culture, history, politics, and tradition. According to Ai, an important inspiration for the series was a scene in Sergei Einstein’s 1928 film October, in which the shaking crystal chandelier suggests the instability of a society undergoing profound change.’  

Deborah E. Horowitz, ed., Ai Weiwei: According to What?, exh. cat., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C., and Mori Art Museum, Tokyo; Munich: Prestel,  2012, p. 56

National Stadium, Peking

© CEphoto, Uwe Aranas / CC-BY-SA-3.0

‘Ai Weiwei's exchanges with Uli Sigg also had an impact on his architectural career. It was the former diplomat who arranged the first contact between the artist and Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, who had never traveled to China up to that point. Knowledgeable in Chinese art, architecture, and cultural history, Ai accompanied Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron  on a journey that would also lead them to Beijing in 2002. In a last-minute decision they decided to jointly sign up for the competition for the National Stadium to be inaugurated on the occasion of the 2008 Olympics. Ai took on a consulting role during the competition and design phase of the structure, which the general public affectionately named the “Bird's Nest”. He was also involved in the landscaping, as well as the strategies about how the work could be used and occupied as a “public sculpture” also after this mega event. About a year before the opening ceremony, Ai Weiwei officially disassociated himself from the project to protest against the abuse of art and architecture for purposes of political propaganda – after all, Ai claimed, he was initially hired by a Swiss architectural firm, not by the Chinese government.’  

Reto Geiser, Ai Weiwei: Art/Architecture, exh. cat., Bregenz: Kunsthaus Bregenz, 2011, p. 37


wooden doors and windows from destroyed Ming and Qing Dynasty Houses
720 x 1200 x 850 cm.; 283 1/2 x 472 1/2 x 334 5/8 in.
Installation view: Documenta 12, Kassel, 2007
© documenta archiv
Photo: Monika Nikolic

‘Just a few days after the opening of Documenta 12, Ai Weiwei's Template (2007) collapsed following a storm. The structure, around 23 feet tall and one of the festival's key outdoor exhibits, was made of exactly 1,001 door and window frames from the Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368-1911). Ai had acquired the frames, like so many basic components of his work, at Chinese antique markets. The artist assigned his assistants to craft the wooden antiques into four relief-like walls placed upright in the shape of a star around an axis. [...] The fragility of Template brought to mind a large house of cards.

But unlike playing cards, the walls were cut on their inside edges so that a negative space arose from the sum of the recesses in the construction's interior. This negative space had the outline of a traditional temple of the kind seen on a thousand hilltops or other selected sites in China, although they increasingly have to make way for capitalist China's infrastructure projects. It was this ‘missing temple’ that enabled visitors to walk through Template and appreciate its ingenious, fragile construction not only by observation but also by physical experience. […]

It would be wrong to interpret Ai's empty space as nothing more than a farewell. Like many of his works, Template is a testament of despair about what once was and now is no more.’  

Roger M. Buergel, ‘The Mediator’s Way: The Freedom and Art of Ai Weiwei’, in Ai Weiwei, Cologne: Taschen, 2020, p 177

Fairytale Chairs

twenty wooden Qing dynasty chairs (1644-1911)
variable dimensions
Collection: Rubell Family Collection, Miami
Courtesy Rubell Museum, Miami

‘Ai Weiwei’s Fairytale - 1001 Chinese Visitors entailed sending 1,001 Chinese to Kassel, Germany during the Documenta 12 exhibition in 2007. In addition to being the site of the Document exhibitions, Kassel is known for being the place where the Grimm brothers collected and edited their famous collection of fairytales.

The masses often obscure the individual in the densely populated nation of China, and with this work and his choice to involve 1,001 people, the artist was calling attention to the one, the individual, amongst the 1,000, emphasising the importance of a single person among the group. The work included an installation of 1,001 Qing Dynasty chairs and a documentary video, Fairytale, which shows the process and the obstacles overcome by the Chinese citizens who participated and made their first trip overseas. Beginning with an explanation of the project, the video includes scenes of participants applying for passports, leaving China, their twenty-eight day stay in Kassel, and their return home. In a way, viewers are presented with a collection of 1,001 fairytales as they experience the stories and challenges of the participants.’ 

Deborah E. Horowitz, ed., Ai Weiwei: According to What?, exh. cat., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C., and Mori Art Museum, Tokyo; Munich: Prestel,  2012, p. 110

Ton of Tea

one ton of compressed tea
99 x 98.5 x 98 cm.; 39 x 38 3/4 x 38 1/2 in.
edition 1 of 3
Collection: Bristol Museum & Art Gallery, Bristol
© Jamie Woodley, courtesy of Bristol Museum & Art Gallery

‘Another portion of the answer to the question of Ai's personality can be found in the works he made now that he had found his way back to art. Seen through Western eyes, their gestures consistently produce ambiguity – a very tangible ambiguity. The hardware bears mainly Chinese connotations, while we are left to somehow imagine the software. We sense a personality with a very clear idea of what art is and isn't, and what is needed to grasp or compose a thing and then move it from one sphere into another. But what constitutes this very clear idea – especially when we lack the contextual knowledge of Chinese thoughts and things? Is a cubic meter of tea the same on both sides of the world? Of course not: “to drink a cup of tea” is a euphemism often use by the Chinese police when summoning people to preliminary interrogations.’ 

Uli Sigg, ‘The Better Argument: A Portrait of Ai Weiwei’, in Ai Weiwei, Cologne: Taschen, 2020, p. 8

Study of Perspective - Eiffel Tower

gelatin silver print
38.9 x 59 cm.; 15 5/16 x 23 1/4 in.
Collection: MoMA, New York
Acquired through the generosity of the Photography Council Fund and the Contemporary Arts Council of The Museum of Modern Art. Acc. n.: 353.2008. © 2021. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence

‘An unwittingly ironic element of Ai's work […] is his earlier wry commentary on monumental public structures. Two years after his return to China in 1993, Ai Weiwei photographed his middle finger in front of the Eiffel Tower. The photograph was part of a series of work entitled Study of Perspective, 1995-, which included various national monuments and spaces such as Tiananmen Square, the White House, and the Reichstag, the Parliament building in Berlin. Mimicking a traditional method of gauging the scale of objects, especially in archaeological fieldwork or academic sketching , the artist's irreverent gesture – the gesture of the individual –  emphasizes the individual's distance from the monumental objects.’ 

Charles Merewether, ‘The House of the People: Forms of Collaboration’, in Ai Weiwei: According to What?, exh. cat., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C., Munich: Prestel,  2012, pp. 27-28

Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn

lambda print, set of 3
each: 180 x 162 cm.; 70 7/8 x 63 3/4 in.
Collection: Mori Art Museum, Tokyo

‘The act of dropping a Han Dynasty urn to the floor and thus destroying 2,000 years of cultural tradition and legacy expresses the notion that new ideas and values are produced through iconoclasm. The three photographs that record the artist’s performance form a work of conceptual art that captures the moment when tradition is transformed and challenged by new values.’ 

Deborah E. Horowitz, ed., Ai Weiwei: According to What?, exh. cat., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C., and Mori Art Museum, Tokyo; Munich: Prestel, 2012, p. 89

Han Dynasty Urn with Coca-Cola Logo

ceramic and paint
overall: 25 x 28 x 28 cm.; 9 7/8 x 11 x 11 in.
Collection: M+ Sigg Collection, Hong Kong
M+ Sigg Collection, Hong Kong. By donation. [2012.49]

‘For Ai, the most important attribute of the artist's existence would henceforth be reason, which had failed to illuminate most anything in the cultural-revolutionary China of his youth, which again probably explains why he's been practicing it so relentlessly ever since. His discovery of Duchamp had buried the postimpressionist, and in Duchamp's ideas about the artist's existence as a mindset, as a lifestyle, Ai found his identity.

He decided to return to China in 1993, prompted by his father's serious illness. At first, he lived in his father's house, where he considered himself a mere guest, and not a particularly respectable one at that, with not a thing to show for all the years spent in the US – no elegant diploma, not even a half-decent art career. So he kept a low profile, limiting his expression to the publishing of three books about Western and experimental Chinese art.  His now famous Han Dynasty Urn with Coca-Cola Logo from 1994, the photo work Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn from 1995, even his first compositions made of deconstructed furniture from 1997 onward – he didn't regard any of it as art. He considered them mere diversions. It wasn't until 1999 that he again faced the challenge of producing art according to his own definition – after being nominated by Harald Szeemann to appear in the Venice Biennale of that year.’ 

Uli Sigg, ‘The Better Argument: A Portrait of Ai Weiwei’, in Ai Weiwei, Cologne: Taschen, 2020, p. 8

Hanging Man

steel, wood
panel with hanger: 45.1 × 40 × 3.8 cm.; 17 3/4 × 15 3/4 × 1 1/2 in.
lid: 45.1 × 40 × 3.8 cm.; 17 3/4 × 15 3/4 × 1 1/2 in.
Collection: Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia
Philadelphia Museum of Art: Purchased with funds contributed by Marion Boulton Stroud in memory of Anne d’Harnoncourt and in honor of Timothy Rub, Gail Harrity, Carlos Basualdo, John Tancock, and Innis Shoemaker, 2015, 2015-62-1a,b © Courtesy of the artist and Chambers Fine Art

‘Ai remained in New York for eleven years [from 1982], where he took over 10,000 photographs of the city and immersed himself in contemporary art, particularly the oeuvres of Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), Jasper Johns (b. 1930) and, especially, Andy Warhol (1928-1987), whose book The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again) was the first he purchased in New York City. Yet it was Duchamp rather than Warhol who inspired Ai’s most renowned work of his New York period, and one that signalled the artist’s predilection for appropriating and redefining the connotations of seemingly ordinary objects: Hanging Man (photographed in 1983), a profile portrait of Marcel Duchamp created from a metal coat hanger and originally filled with real sunflower seeds, a favoured snack during the Cultural Revolution that also represented Mao Zedong’s radiance at the height of his power.’ 

Alison Bracker, ‘Ai Weiwei’, Royal Academy of Arts: Exhibition in Focus, London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2015, pp. 3-5

All works: © Ai Weiwei