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Ai Weiwei has been called an iconoclast, a radical, a voice for the voiceless, and was once named the most powerful artist in the world. Who is Ai Weiwei? And why is he considered one of the most renowned artists of our time?

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In 1995, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei photographed himself as he picked up a two thousand year old urn and let it smash to the ground. If we're appalled when cultural heritage is destroyed in the name of god and state, how can we possibly defend Ai's action? How can we buy a ticket to see photos of it in a museum? How can those photos sell for over a million dollars? How can this man be one of the most renowned artists of our time? This is the case for Ai Weiwei.

Ai Weiwei was born in Beijing in 1957 to writer Gao Ying and famed poet Ai Qing, whom Communist leader Mao Zedong initially embraced, but soon after denounced during the Anti-Rightist Movement of 1958. The family was exiled to labor camps in remote provinces until the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976. They then returned to Beijing, and Ai - and by that, I mean Ai Weiwei - enrolled in Beijing Film Academy in 1978, and co-founded a group of avant garde artists called the Stars.

In 1981, he decamped to the US and settled in New York, where he scraped by, hung out with his neighbor, renowned beat poet Allen Ginsberg, and took lots and lots of pictures. He also immersed himself in art, studying Marcel Duchamp and considering the idea of the readymade as a way to make art.

When he returned to China in 1993, he met with a country undergoing tremendous change. Many were still reeling from the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators, and Deng Xiaoping's focus on economic development had tripped off the massive transformation of China's cities.

Ai's urn dropping occurred not long after his return. But his irreverence had surfaced before that. He turned a critical eye toward all edifices of power, at home as well as abroad. Well-versed in antiques, he knew the value of historic objects and the symbolic power of manipulating them. Chinese antiquities became Ai's raw material for a new kind of readymade: dynamically synthesizing the clash between reverence for the past and the irrepressible drive toward the future.

For modernization is a mixed bag: With change, there is loss. History is erased. How can we condemn an artist for destroying cultural heritage when his government has razed neighborhoods and entire cities to build new roads, buildings, giant dams, and Olympic stadiums? Ai's work allows us to reckon with the destruction that construction requires.  

But to be clear, he is more of a creator than destroyer. He has repurposed wood from demolished temples and transformed it into intricate and dramatic installations. He takes a basic unit–say, and antique stool–and multiplies it, compounds it, to see where it takes us. History that otherwise would be relegated to dusty shops or landfills is made strikingly, unforgettably visible.

And he has found new uses for old techniques, hiring craftspeople adept in ancient joinery traditions. He's enlisted the most skilled porcelain makers in the world to demonstrate their mastery, commissioning exquisitely made copies and objects like watermelons, crabs, and millions and millions of sunflower seeds.

He has embraced the handmade within an economy whose incredible growth has been fueled by automation and mass production. Hw has synthesized traditionally Chinese materials to think about the part in relationship with the whole; the self in relationship to the collective.

"If a nation cannot face its past," he has said, "it has no future."

And Ai is equally concerned with the present. In 2008, when the Sichuan earthquake struck, he visited the region in the immediate aftermath and assembled volunteers to gather the names of the dead, addressing attempts by authorities to cover up the disproportionate number of schoolchildren who died because of poorly built schools. He amassed tons of twisted rebar from the wreckage, painstakingly straightened it, and assembled it spare elegiac memorials.

He arranged 9,000 backpacks on the facade of the Haus der Kunst in Munich to represent the young lives lost, spelling out a quote from a victim's mother: "She lived happily for seven years in this world." 

Ai has been a ceaseless, unflagging voice for the voiceless. In 2009, he was beaten and detained in his hotel room in Chengdu when attempting to testify in the trial of human rights activist Tan Zuoren. He visits with refugees fleeing the war in Syria, organized a London walk of compassion in their honor, covered his sculptures with thermal blankets, and wrapped the columns of Berlin's concert hall with salvaged refugee life vests.

An early adherent of social media, he's an adamant supporter of free speech. He reports on his life in minute detail. He did so up until his 2011 arrest and confinement for 81 days on unfounded tax evasion charges, as well as after.

Authorities have demolished his Shanghai studio, threatened to demolish his Beijing studio, and forced him to pay a tax evasion fine of 15 million yuan. He has been continually surveilled and followed, prevented from leaving his country, and through it all, has refused censorship within China, as well as abroad.

Not everything he does is genius. Be he remains committed to reaching an ever wider public. His work does not sit firmly in the realm of art, but radiates out.

He's often called an iconoclast. And an urn crusher would certainly seem to adhere to the definition. But there's another way to see Ai Weiwei, as someone who desperately wants the cherished beliefs and institutions of China's past to be remembered and resuscitated. And in that sense, as radicals go, he's brilliantly conservative. His work is deeply rooted in history and tradition. It is steeped in remembering, valuing, preserving.

He stands defiantly opposed to a culture that wants to move on with little regard for the past. He is resistance to forgetting, to silence. His work asks us to consider what we value, why we value it, and what we are accountable for destroying, preserving, or transforming. He asks fundamental questions about our human rights and responsibilities. "Liberty," he says, "is about our rights to question everything."

Out of a source of constant irritation, the oyster develops a pearl. Ai is that constant source of irritation. And we are lucky not only to bear witness to it, but to be called to action by it.

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