Ai Weiwei: 13 works to know

Published 15 September 2015

Ai Weiwei has worked in everything from paint to readymades. As our landmark exhibition examines work from 1993 up to the present day, we take a look at some of the key works to know from across Ai’s career.

  • In Ai Weiwei’s work, there is no division between art and politics. Throughout his career, the artist has never shied away from difficult truths and has resolutely fought for freedom of expression. Through sculpture, film, installation, photography and architecture – and across an array of materials including ceramics, marble, paint and tea – he has campaigned for human rights with works dealing with oppression, commemoration and Chinese identity and social history, as poignant as they are provocative. Find out more about Ai Weiwei’s life and work in our beginner’s guide.

    Here, we take a quick look at 13 key works throughout his career.

  • Still Life, 1993–2000

  • Ai Weiwei, Still Life

    Ai Weiwei, Still Life, 1993–2000.

    Still Life is an installation of around 4,000 stone axe-heads – dating back to China’s Stone Age, around 6000 BC – painstakingly laid out on the floor. The work suggest’s Ai Weiwei’s complex feelings surrounding China’s handling of social history.

    Dimensions variable. 3,600 stone tools dating from the Stone Age to the Shang Dynasty (10,000-1100 BC). Image courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio © Ai Weiwei.

  • Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995

  • Ai Weiwei, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn

    Ai Weiwei, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995.

    In 1995, Ai smashed an antique urn. He had became fascinated with China’s traditional heritage that Mao had tried to wipe out during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). He would visit antique markets, gathering items that he’d learnt from Duchamp could be presented as artworks in themselves, or “readymades” – among them, 2000 year-old urns from the Han Dynasty. Creating what is still one of his most provocative works, the artist photographed himself dropping one.

    3 black and white prints. Each 148 x 121 cm. Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio Image courtesy Ai Weiwei © Ai Weiwei.

  • ‘The Bird’s Nest’, National Stadium, Beijing, 2005–08

  • Ai Weiwei, 'The Bird's Nest', National Stadium, Beijing

    Ai Weiwei, 'The Bird's Nest', National Stadium, Beijing, 2005–2008.

    Nicknamed the ‘Bird’s Nest’ because of its fretted structure, the National Stadium in Beijing was a collaboration between Ai Weiwei and Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron, built in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics. The stadium has since been a source of regret for Ai Weiwei. He boycotted the Olympics, highlighting the discrepancy between China’s patriotic rhetoric and yet its terrible human rights record. “It was merely a stage for a political party to advertise its glory to the world,” he told Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun. “Since the Olympics, I haven’t looked at it”.

    Image courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio © Ai Weiwei.

  • Fragments, 2005

  • Ai Weiwei, Fragments

    Ai Weiwei, Fragments, 2005.

    For Fragments, Ai Weiwei salvaged pillars and beams of “tieli”, Chinese ironwood, from demolished Qing dynasty temples, and worked with carpenters to create a structure of poles with linking arms. When viewed from above, it becomes apparent that the anchored poles mark out the borders of a map of China.

    500 x 850 x 700 cm. Iron wood (tieli wood) table, chairs, parts of beams and pillars from dismantled temples of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911). M + Sigg Collection, Hong Kong. By donation. Image courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio © Ai Weiwei.

  • Template, 2007

  • Ai Weiwei, Template

    Ai Weiwei, Template, 2007.

    Like many of Ai Weiwei’s works, Template relates to change in China. It is composed of wooden doors and windows salvaged from Ming and Qing Dynasty houses which had been demolished to make way for new development. On displaying the installation outdoors in Germany in 2007, the structure collapsed after being exposed to wind and rain. Ai Weiwei embraced this change: “When I saw how the site had collapsed – turned into some other shape – I was quite impressed,” he told Bloomberg. “It comes from ruins and now it’s really a ruin”.

    After collapsing at Documenta 12, Kassel, 2007. Wooden doors and windows from destroyed Ming and Qing Dynasty houses (1368–1911). Image courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio © Ai Weiwei.

  • Fountain of Light, 2007

  • Ai Weiwei, Fountain of Light

    Ai Weiwei, Fountain of Light, 2007.

    Shown at Tate Liverpool in 2007, Fountain of Light is a glittering tiered chandelier of glass crystals over 20 feet high. It was inspired by Vladimir Tatlin’s ambitious Communist monument in Russia – the Monument for the Third International, or “Tatlin’s Tower” (recreated in miniature in the RA courtyard in 2012 for the exhibition Building the Revolution: Soviet Art and Architecture 1915-1935) – that, despite elaborate plans, was never built.

    Steel and glass crystals on wooden base. 700 x 529 x 400 cm. Image courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio © Ai Weiwei.

  • Straight, 2008–12

  • Ai Weiwei, Straight

    Ai Weiwei, Straight, 2008–12.

    The largest gallery at the RA will house Straight, Ai Weiwei’s poignant response to the Sichuan earthquake of 2008. Poorly built schools in the Sichuan province – held up by steel rods which twisted and mangled in the quake – were devastated, leaving thousands of students dead. These rods (which Ai had labourers straighten by hand) make up the 90-ton floor-based sculpture, that is laid out in broken undulations recalling fault lines.

    Steel reinforcing bars. 1200 x 600 cm. Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio. Image courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio © Ai Weiwei.

  • Remembering, 2009

  • Ai Weiwei, Remembering

    Ai Weiwei, Remembering, 2009.

    Originally installed on the façade of the Haus der Kunst in Munich, Remembering is also a response to the Sichuan earthquake. Consisting of 9,000 school children’s backpacks, the different colours are arranged to depict the sentence, “For seven years she lived happily on this earth” in Chinese lettering, which was uttered by the mother of a small girl who perished in the quake. Later, Ai would talk of the negligence of the Chinese authorities for the poorly built schools which collapsed.

    Installation on the façade of the Haus der Kunst, Munich. Image courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio © Ai Weiwei.

  • Sunflower Seeds, 2010

  • Ai Weiwei, Sunflower Seeds

    Ai Weiwei, Sunflower Seeds, 2010.

    In 2011, Ai Weiwei’s sunflower seeds – 100 million of them – were poured into the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. Each one was unique: hand-crafted from porcelain in Jingdezhen – the Chinese town that once produced imperial porcelain for over a thousand years. It took 1,600 artisans over two years to make the seeds, which were created out of the kaolin from local mountains, hand-painted and fired at 1,300 degrees. While the seeds were on display in London, Ai was arrested and detained without explanation by the Chinese authorities for 81 days. During this period, the RA elected Ai an Honorary Royal Academician, in solidarity.

    Installation of 100 million painted porcelain seeds in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern, London. Photo © Tate, London 2015 © Ai Weiwei.

  • S.A.C.R.E.D., 2012

  • Ai Weiwei, S.A.C.R.E.D.

    Ai Weiwei, S.A.C.R.E.D., 2011-2013.

    Ai’s work S.A.C.R.E.D. reflects upon his time in detention. It takes the form of six iron cuboids, which will stand in the RA gallery at shoulder height. Through apertures in the metal façade of each cuboid, visitors will be able to peer inside and view miniature dioramas of Ai’s imprisonment, the artist and his guards replicated in fibreglass.

    Fibreglass, iron, oxidized metal, wood, polystyrenen, sticky tape. Each 377 x 198 x 153 cm. Six-part work composed of six dioramas – Supper, Accusers, Cleansing, Ritual, Entropy, Doubt. Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio and Lisson Gallery. Image courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio © Ai Weiwei.

  • Forever Bicycles, 2013

  • Ai Weiwei, Forever Bicycles

    Ai Weiwei, Forever Bicycles, 2013.

    In Forever – the latest of Ai’s Forever Bicycle series – the artist acknowledges his appreciation of Marcel Duchamp, and in particular Duchamp’s first readymade, Bicycle Wheel of 1913. This installation is a grouping of 1,179 stainless steel bicycle frames, held together in geometrical shapes. The sculpture’s name refers to the Forever bicycle brand which has been producing bikes in Shanghai since 1940, and the work can be seen as both a reference to Chinese peasants (for whom the Forever bicycle was a primary means of transport) and a comment upon the widespread mass production that fuels China’s industries.

    1,179 Forever bicycle frames, h. 10m. Installation at the 55th Venice Biennale, 2013. Courtesy of Lisson Gallery. Photography: Filippo Armellin © Ai Weiwei.

  • Stools, 2013

  • Ai Weiwei, Stools

    Ai Weiwei, Stools, 2013.

    This installation at the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin consisted of 6,000 stools laid out in the gallery. The three-legged wooden stools – originally produced by craftsmen – were typical of those used by Chinese families in the Ming Dynasty, which were replaced by metal and plastic models after the Cultural Revolution. The work demonstrates the influence of Duchamp on Ai’s work in his continued exploration of the cultural values of China expressed through everyday objects.

    6,000 antique stools, dimensions variable. Installation at ‘In Evidence’, Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, 2014. Image courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio © Ai Weiwei.

  • Ye Haiyan’s Belongings, 2013

  • Ai Weiwei, Ye Haiyan’s Belongings

    Ai Weiwei, Ye Haiyan’s Belongings, 2013.

    Ye Haiyan is an activist for women’s rights in China. In response to her activism, the Chinese government evicted her from her home, leaving her, her daughter and their luggage on the side of a motorway. Ai has helped Ye Haiyan financially since she became homeless, and eventually turned her hastily packed belongings into an artwork.

    Installation at ‘Ai Weiwei: According to What?’, at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York. Image courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio © Ai Weiwei.

  • Ai Weiwei is in the Main Galleries of Burlington House from 19 September until 13 December.