Ai Weiwei, 2010

Ai Weiwei, 2010; Photo credit: Gao Yuan

Ai Weiwei: According to What?

August 17 – October 27, 2013


“The most powerful figure in contemporary art.” — ArtReview

Although Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is one of the most prolific, provocative and significant artists at work today, audiences in North America have had little exposure to his vast and varied output. That will change this summer, when the AGO becomes the only Canadian stop on a North American tour that is already drawing crowds — and controversy — at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C.

Featuring photographs, sculpture, installation art and audio and video pieces, Ai Weiwei: According to What? examines how the artist spotlights the complexities of a changing world and probes such issues as freedom of expression, individual and human rights, the power of digital communication and the range of creative practice that characterizes contemporary art today both in China and globally.

Organized by Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, and the Art Gallery of Ontario


Ai Weiwei is an artist with a very new kind of visibility. He has transcended his artwork to become a worldly figure who, for many, symbolizes the assertion of freedom of expression against great odds. Using the fame and recognition garnered by his art, he has taken on issues that could not be raised publically in China.

Ai has been the recipient of numerous grants, honours and awards, most recently in 2012 the inaugural Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent of the Human Rights Foundation; the International Center of Photography Cornell Capa Award; an honourary fellowship from the Royal Institute of British Architects; an Honourary Degree from Pratt Institute; and a foreign membership in the Royal Swedish Academy of Arts. Other honours over the past five years include a Chinese Contemporary Art Award for Lifetime Achievement; an International Architecture Award for Tsai Residence; Das Glas der Vernunft (The Prism of Reason), Kassel Citizen Award; The Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation Award for Courage; the Skowhegan Medal for Multidisciplinary Art; Wallpaper Design Award Best New Private House for Tsai Residence; and a Wall Street Journal Innovators Award (Art). Ai Weiwei is consistently included in top artist and human rights lists, including GQ Men of the Year in 2009 (Germany); the Art Review Power 100, rank 43 in 2009; the Art Review Power 100, rank 13 in 2010; the Art Review Power 100, rank one in 2011; Foreign Policy Top Global Thinkers of 2011, rank 18; and runner up in Time’s Person of the Year in 2011. Ai Weiwei helped establish Beijing East Village in 1993, co-founded the China Art Archives & Warehouse in 1997 and founded the architecture studio FAKE Design in 2003. He studied at the Beijing Film Academy, Parsons School of Design and Art Students League of New York; upon returning to China he collaborated with Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron as the artistic consultant on the Beijing National Stadium for the 2008 Olympic Games.

Watch a video chat between Ai Weiwei and AGO CEO and Director Matthew Teitelbaum recorded live at AGO First Thursdays on September 5, 2013


On May 12, 2008, a massive earthquake in China’s Sichuan province killed approximately 90,000 people. Ai Weiwei created this serpentine sculpture, made of backpacks, to commemorate the more than 5,000 school children who were killed when their shoddily constructed schools collapsed. Government officials refused to release the number of deaths, or acknowledge any accountability, so in 2009, Ai Weiwei launched a “citizen investigation” to ensure that neither the children nor the devastation would be forgotten. He wrote: “Can these facts be altered? The hearts stopped beating, their limbs decayed, and their shouts disappeared with their breath, can these be returned? Wave upon wave of mighty propaganda from the national state apparatus cannot erase the persistent memories of the survivors….People’s hearts will call out each of your names, the name that belonged to you will be remembered. When it is called out again, you will rise from the dead and be contented spirits.”

This work has been installed in advance of the exhibition Ai Weiwei: According to What?, opening August 17, 2013.

Advance installation of Ai Weiwei's Snake Ceiling is generously supported by Partners in Art

Ai Weiwei slide show


Seen in Nathan Phillips Square (100 Queen St. W.) from June 18 to September 22, 2013

Ai Weiwei has reinterpreted the 12 bronze animal heads representing the Chinese zodiac that once stood in the gardens of the Yuanming Yuan (Garden of Perfect Brightness, Old Summer Palace), an imperial retreat in Beijing. In accordance with the conventions of the traditional Chinese zodiac, the works are installed in an oval in the following order: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig. Each of the works is one solid piece of bronze and stands roughly 10 feet high on a marble base. Their weight ranges from 1,500 to 2,100 pounds.

Designed in the 1700s by two European Jesuits, serving in the court of Emperor Qianlong of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), the 12 zodiac animal heads originally functioned as a water clock-fountain in the magnificent European-style gardens. In 1860 the palace was ransacked by French and British troops and the zodiac heads looted. Some were taken to the collections of the French and English courts and other appeared in auction houses in London and Beijing. Only seven of the 12 figures are still known to exist. Five were repatriated to China, but ownership of the remaining two remains contested.

In reinterpreting these objects on an oversized scale, Ai’s Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads focuses attention on questions of looting and repatriation, while continuing his ongoing exploration of the fake and the copy in relation to the original.

Installed in Nathan Phillips Square in advance of the exhibition Ai Weiwei: According to What?, running August 17 to October 27, 2013, Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads is Ai’s first major public sculpture project and has previously appeared in Washington D.C., Sao Paulo, London, New York, Los Angeles and Taipei, among other cities.

This installation of Ai Weiwei's Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads made possible by



  1. Use the links on left side of this page to choose tracks
  2. Press the "Play" button to listen to the audio

Other ways to listen to this audio tour


Track 1: Welcome and Introduction

Matthew Teitelbaum: Hello, I'm Matthew Teitelbaum, the Art Gallery of Ontario's director and CEO. Welcome to Ai Weiwei: According to What?, an exhibition profiling Ai Weiwei, China's most prolific and provocative contemporary artist and one of the most significant artists at work in the world today. Ai Weiwei constantly pushes boundaries using a range of creative practices — including the power of digital communication — that characterizes contemporary art today, both in China and globally. His use of social media as an art form (he has more than 200,000 followers on Twitter) challenges the traditional definition of art and serves as a platform for his passionate advocacy for freedom of expression.

Mami Kataoka: Hello, my name is Mami Kataoka. I'm chief curator of Mori Art Museum in Tokyo. I first initiated this exhibition with Ai Weiwei in 2009 in Tokyo. The title of the exhibition is Ai Weiwei: According to What? This originally comes from the title of a work by Jasper Johns. It really questions us: where we are and why we are here, and where we came from, according to what?

Matthew Teitelbaum:: We invite you to join the conversation here at your AGO where we strongly believe in exploring ideas through the lens of art.

I would like to thank Emmanuelle Gattuso & Allan Slaight and the Hal Jackman Foundation for their leadership gifts in support of this exhibition. I also wish to thank the Delaney Family Foundation; Donner Canadian Foundation; Partners in Art; and Francis and Eleanor Shen for their generous support as well as our media partner, the Globe and Mail. Contemporary programming at the AGO is generously supported by the Canada Council for the Arts.

Track 2: Ai Weiwei in the elevator when taken into custody by the police and Brain Inflation

Mami Kataoka: Two photographs: Ai Weiwei in the elevator when taken into custody by the police and also Brain Inflation. When Ai Weiwei was visiting Sichuan for a court case of his friend, he was taken by the local police in the middle of the night, so that he wouldn't be able to attend the court case. He's aware of every moment of his life. And every photograph becomes a memory of the moment. This photograph was taken in the elevator as he found a pop star being in the same elevator when he was taken to the police. The Brain Inflation photograph shows his X ray images when he had brain surgery in Germany. This tells you the true fact of what happened to him physically and makes all the stories something very actual.

Track 3: Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei: I think art has to deal with our daily experience, emotions and our aesthetic judgment, which of course relates to our morals and philosophy. All my work either directly or indirectly relates to my experience here.

Mainly I have no clear goal in my art. I let it be very loose; I let it happen spontaneously. But I have been so deeply involved with my condition or my socio-political understanding. I try to make the work which people who do or do not have the same experience would appreciate. Or even to challenge their sense of beauty or aesthetics.

Everybody who comes into this world should have a chance to develop themselves, to get their very basic rights, to exercise their will and to have a passion, imagination and the freedom to participate.

As an artist I'm more focused on freedom of speech. When you protect it, it's essential, to get a real sense of private feelings and to share with others. And also I'm very interested in communication, to find a new way to communicate.

Track 4: Ai Weiwei in the Context of China

Charlie Foran: I'm Charlie Foran, an author and the president of PEN Canada, a freedom of expression organization. I lived in China for five years, including two years in Beijing, and wrote a book about the lives of Beijing intellectuals in the wake of the June 4, 1989, massacre.

My interests in Ai Weiwei go back to his emergence in the wake of the Beijing Olympics, and I consider him by far the most important, interesting, stimulating, and original of contemporary Chinese artists.

Now, Ai Weiwei is a political artist, but he's not, I don't think, an innately dissident one. Rather, his dissent isn't grounded in any wholescale rejection of his culture's precepts or challenges to that self-conception. What makes him so unique and such trouble to officials is that his work, his thinking, even his life clearly and happily embrace a fundamental principle of Chinese society: the colossal.

His art is as big, as outsized as it needs to be to speak to his nation's deepest instincts. He is very, very Chinese in his approach to discussing politics and art. He embraces the gigantic but he also critiques it, revealing it to be — no surprise — a complex self-conception, full of contradiction and one that allows far too much dehumanization and cruelty.

Look around these rooms at these mostly huge artistic gestures and confrontations. By being so big as an artist, Ai Weiwei is both embodying the colossal as China's enduring reality and declaring that, as one Chinese citizen, at least, he won't abide to any binding terms of that reality, in particular with regards to the individual experience.

He will not accept the supposed trade of social stability with individual rights. He will not allow state sponsored forgetting or coerced silence and he will name names — especially of children.

Ai Weiwei is 100 per cent Chinese, and 100 per cent loyal and 100 per cent suitably outsized in his opposition to many governing principles of his society.

Track 5: Map of China

Charlie Foran: Map of China (2008) is, on the surface, a serene and gorgeous sculpture. By employing salvaged wood from dismantled Ching Dynasty temples and crafting such a deep, unified block from that discarded material, Ai Weiwei could simply be remarking on the great depth and unity of the Chinese experience, both historical and contemporary. He could be simply celebrating the monumental scale of his nation.

But look at the material again and think about the subject and the artist.

Ai Weiwei is a child of the Cultural Revolution. Now, every Chinese citizen who experienced the Cultural Revolution, no matter their age or circumstance, was profoundly shaped by it. The decade haunts a quarter billion lives, easily. His father, the poet Ai Ching, suffered terribly and predictably during the Cultural Revolution but at least survived. Ai Weiwei, a boy and then a teenager during the madness, came of age in a China where esteemed poets cleaned toilets and senior politicians were publicly humiliated and temples were destroyed, books burned, old culture devastated for no reason, for no obvious end. An artist raised in an era when young men and women called Red Guards, working on behalf, they believed, of supreme leader Mao Zedong did their best to obliterate that glorious history, to reduce it to rubble for later use — why not? — in a beautiful sculpture.

Is not the source of the wood for Map of China in equal parts lovely and distressing? Is the deeply physical representation of China as an imposing, impenetrable block, standing alone and aloof not open to other ways of being viewed?

Track 6: Kippe

Mami Kataoka: I'm fond of all the works. One of the early pieces, Kippe, is a very charming piece. But Kippe comes from his childhood memories during the Cultural Revolution when he was small. At school there was only this parallel bar for gymnastics and one basketball goal. Those were the only things the school had, so kids needed to be very creative [about] how to play [with] limited resources.

Because he was living in the Xianjiang District, where it was very cold during winter, every house/family needed to prepare this pile of wood. The family of Ai had a beautiful way of piling up this wood, and then people passing by [would] say, "Oh, my god, this is so beautiful."

You can [get] the idea of how he had been having these creative thoughts in mind since his childhood.

Track 7: Teahouse

Mami Kataoka: The new Teahouse comes in three house-shaped sculptures, using Pu'er tea blocks, oxidized and fermented for several months and compressed into architectural bricks. It was derived from the conversation [about] how his interest in architecture at the time could be seen together with traditional ways of dealing with different materials.

By having loose tea around three houses, it creates a certain environmental presence and further explores the use of ordinary daily materials.

Track 8: Names of the Student Earthquake Victims Found by the Citizens' Investigation

Sheng Xue: I came to Canada right after the Tiananmen Square massacre, 1989. I'm a writer and a poet. I have been banned from going back to my home to visit for 24 years.

It's very important to read out the names of the [kids who died] during the earthquake in Wenchuan. An earthquake is a natural disaster. It could happen in a lot of places. But [it was] not really a natural disaster in China, especially during the Wenchuan earthquake. Thousands of kids died during that earthquake because of the corruption. So that's why people call those kind of buildings [that] collapsed “tofu” buildings.

Ai Weiwei was so brave, and he went there to collect the names of the [kids who died]. That [got] him in trouble. So when we read out their names here, we want to make their lives and stories to be remembered and to be respected.

Track 9: Straight

Charlie Foran: Straight (2008-2012). Ai Weiwei's embodiment of, commitment to and critique of the colossal in Chinese culture is made gloriously manifest in this astonishing piece. Think of the work first in terms of process. What an idea, to recover the actual steel rebar rods that were meant to keep those Sichuan schoolhouses standing during that terrible earthquake.

Most artists who had such a notion would have been content to use any rebar rods for the sculpture, but Ai Weiwei decided he needed to recover and restore the real rods that had really failed to keep those more than 5,000 real children from dying so senselessly.

As with the discarded temple wood in Map of China or the antique stools and grapes or the Han Dynasty vases painted and occasionally destroyed in different pieces, this is old material being made new, and the faded, obscured, possibly suppressed past being made a vivid public present for conversation and for reconsideration.

Once you know where those rebars come from and what was involved in putting them to use, the sculpture opens up to multiple resonances and meanings. It is, first of all, beautiful in a sleek, minimal way. It is also suggestive, both of the ground fissure caused by the earthquake and of the gulf between, perhaps, official and unofficial, inhuman social engineering and actual human experiences of their lives and places.

The act of creating it — the exertion, expense, determination and above all the implicit point in carrying out such a monumental exercise — begin almost to vibrate those steel rods, to unsettle what is, to say the least, a very sedentary piece of art.

The sculpture is a heartfelt memorial to the dead, a scathing critique of the living, an audacious embodiment of how Ai Weiwei thinks about the colossal in China and about himself as an artist and citizen. Public art doesn't get any more political or confrontational than Straight.

Track 10: Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn

Charlie Foran: What does it mean for Ai Weiwei to smash a valuable Han Dynasty vase? The visual of it is very striking and is open to easy and, I think, satisfactory interpretation as the artist smashing the old to bring in the new. He does talk a lot about new conversations, and he means it.

But for a Chinese artist, particularly a Chinese artist raised during the culture revolution when smashing old culture was cynical, disastrous political dictate, smashing a valuable vase must mean something more.

It means you are commenting on the self destructive impulses in your society. You're commenting on the fragility of culture in your society. You're commenting on the ways in which power destroys things, particularly when power is exercised in an autocratic or authoritarian manner. Perhaps you're even commenting a little on the way you must position yourself in that conversation, destroyer and creator both.

Track 11: Forever

Mami Kataoka: Forever could be interpreted in many ways. From a structural point of view, it is again the way of destructing normal use and creating new values by reconstruction. And art- historically speaking, the father of contemporary art, Marcel Duchamp, made one of his first readymade sculptures using existing products in 1913, about 100 years ago, with wooden stools and a wheel of a bicycle, which opened up so many possibilities for the artists in coming generations, including Ai Weiwei.

Socially speaking, the bicycle has been a major means of transportation among Chinese people for a long time, until their economic power grew and everyone shifted to the car. “Forever” was the national brand of the bicycle and everyone wanted a Forever bicycle not so long ago.

Track 12: He Xie

Charlie Foran: Ai Weiwei, as the AGO show makes so apparent, thinks in terms of numbers, usually very big ones. China does that to a person: always the reality is of staggering, numbing statistics and of individuals struggling to be, in effect, anything other than just another number and a very small one. But 3,000 river crabs in this funny, semi whimsical piece are foremost a straightforward and quite daring critique of the Chinese government's ferocious determination to restrict freedom of expression. He Xie doesn't only literally mean “river crab,” it's a also a word that sounds like the word that both means “harmonious” to the Communist Party and is the informal term among netizens for the censorship going on on the net.

China monitors and censors its net activity more aggressively than just about any country on the planet. These river crabs are indeed everywhere and climbing all over each other in this permanently confined space. And their pincers are sharp and at perpetual work suppressing free speech.

Consider the material used to make those censoring crabs: porcelain. The history of Chinese porcelain is bound up in inextricably with the history of dynastic China, deep and rich and characterized from time immemorial by aesthetic fragility and, by-the-by, absolutist rule.

And while those river crabs may be busy-busy, crawling and snapping, what is their ultimate fate within that constricted space? To be eaten, just like everybody else, including their victims. Just as Chinese citizens, whether the coercers or the coerced, the victimizers or the victims, generally end up the same: in the proverbial pot.

Track 13: Moon Chest

Mami Kataoka: The design of Moon Chest is derived from traditional Ming Dynasty chests, but with those holes on the doors, it has become a functionless sculpture. And due to the scale and the way of presentation, it also gives us the sense of architectural structure. Each Moon Chest has holes on both the front and back sides. Looking through the holes, you can appreciate the different shapes of waxing and waning of the moon.

The Chinese calendar is based on the movement of the moon, not the sun, like the Western calendar system. So the sun and the moon are always in combination somehow, but to look at the moon is also to look at the shadow of the sun.

Track 14: New York Photographs

Mami Kataoka: New York Photographs 1983-1993 introduces not only Ai Weiwei's everyday activities in the '80s when we was living in New York, but also reveals the social conditions and some of the incidents on the streets. This series of photographs also reveals his friends and acquaintances around that time, as well as his experiences of visiting museums in New York and seeing Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns, among others. You can find the direct influence from Marcel Duchamp and then you see how he developed his artistic practice after he left New York and went back to Beijing.

Listen to comments by Ai Weiwei as well as:

  • Matthew Teitelbaum, Director and CEO of the AGO, introducing Ai Weiwei and discussing his importance as an international artist and his passionate activism for freedom of expression
  • Mami Kataoka, Chief Curator at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo and curator of Ai Weiwei: According to What?, explaining and commenting on a number of the pieces in the exhibition
  • Charlie Foran, President of PEN Canada, offering insights on Ai Weiwei and several of his pieces of art in the context of contemporary and 20th-century China
  • Sheng Xue, an exiled Chinese author, speaking about the importance of the work Ai did to ensure the children who died in the Sichuan earthquake are not forgotten

Enrich your visit with a cellphone tour

  1. In the exhibition space, look for the cell phone symbol beside an artwork
  2. Call this toll-free number: 1-877-522-6835 (note that you will be using your cellphone minutes while listening) or use the AGO app (download it here or, if you already have it, connect to a wifi network and get the latest update)
  3. Enter the stop number on the label, followed by the # key

Please note that while the call is free, you will be using your cell phone minutes while listening.

Other Ways to Listen to This Audio Tour on Your Next AGO Visit


"It all begs a chicken-or-egg query: Is Ai the most important artist on the planet because of his politicization, or in spite of it? The answer, simply, is yes." – Murray Whyte, The Toronto Star

"This is what art is supposed to do." – David Jager, NOW

"It’s this use – courageous? foolhardy? – of digital technology and social media to tweak and circumvent state repression that, in part, makes Ai ubiquitous outside China – if not the most important or influential artist of the age, then at least its most emblematic." – James Adams, The Globe & Mail

"Ai Weiwei is a rarity among artists in that his voice has come to represent an entire people — as dynamic, compelling and contradictory as China itself." – Gillian MacKay, Canadian Art

"That we get to know his work better, even in his absence, confirms that Ai has become an international symbol of dissent, and moreover, as skilled a propagandist as the government against which he’s fighting." – Chris Hampton, The Grid

"…The literal absence of the artist, who has been under house arrest in Beijing since 2011, hovers as a ghostly presence." – Anne Kingston, Maclean’s

"His work, his life and the oppressive government reaction to both embody everything art means to us: a fearless consideration and critique of contemporary culture, a compassionate consideration of life as it is lived and the necessity of being able to stand up and speak our minds on those subjects." – Dave Berry, The National Post

"That is the greatest lesson in According to What?: art is even more dangerous than dissent." – Stephen Marche, Toronto Life

"According to What? isn’t the outpouring of a disaffected imagination or an aesthetic outsider. Rather, the exhibition showcases an artist rooted in his own culture’s precepts, and determined to engage them." – Charles Foran, The Globe and Mail

“Ai Weiwei: According to What? is a compelling look at the man and his life’s work, and the AGO’s location next to Chinatown and fiercely independent Kensington Market makes the exhibit particularly well suited to its venue." – Carly Maga, Torontoist

"...Ai’s poetic thrift suffers from the hammer of emphasis. Nevertheless, the opportunity to see one of the world’s most fiercely relevant artists at work should be seized" – Skye Goodden, BLOUIN ARTINFO Canada

"Both emotionally draining and politically challenging, the exhibition is a must-attend for anyone with even a passing interest in contemporary art." – Derek Flack, blogTO

“Ai wants to start a conversation. The government does not want to talk.” – Bill Schiller for Star Dispatches (e-book)

"In a litany of loss, the names of 5,200 dead Chinese schoolchildren reverberated throughout the room from a loudspeaker." – Marc Ellison, The Toronto Star

"Ai Weiwei is a larger-than-life character, living in a huge country, dealing with larger-than-life issues." – Gillian McIntyre, interpretive planner of Ai Weiwei: According to What? at the AGO

"There's no artist here, so that's a very unusual thing. I wish that Ai Weiwei could see this exhibition." – Kitty Scott, AGO curator of modern and contemporary art

"It's an exhibition that will change the way you see the world."  – Jeanne Beker for CTV's Canada AM

"...He has created an identity that the world is only just starting to understand." — Matthew Teitelbaum, AGO Director & CEO

Sean Martindale, 01 Love the Future / Free Ai Weiwei, 2011


Toronto-based interventionist artist Sean Martindale created Love The Future / Free Ai Weiwei during Ai's detention by Chinese authorities in spring 2011. This show of solidarity is intended to raise awareness and further dialogue about the internationally acclaimed artist’s situation, as well as those of others disappeared due to their political and artistic expression. The eight-foot-tall statue is made entirely out of salvaged cardboard Martindale collected in and around Toronto’s central Chinatown neighbourhood.

Although Ai was conditionally released on house arrest on June 22, 2011 the eve of Martindale’s project launch at the Whippersnapper Gallery in Toronto he and other politically outspoken individuals continue to face government repression. In fact, Ai is still far from free, unable to leave his country because the government will not return his passport. This piece highlights not only Ai's struggle, but also the dangers many artists and political dissidents confront globally. Martindale’s artistic practice is closely connected to the politics of public space, and as a result his work is constantly subject to, and within the parameters of, the overarching politics of how we regulate freedoms of expression, mobility, association and so on, in such spaces.

The Love The Future / Free Ai Weiwei project has continued in the form of temporary public installations at events and sites of political significance around Toronto such as outside City Hall, the Queen’s Park Legislature and the Consulate-General of the People's Republic of China. At each site, the statue has been documented, and thousands of sunflower seeds left behind as physical yet ephemeral traces of its presence. The project has also been exhibited at the University of Toronto’s Hart House, in Montreal at PAPIER12, at the Royal Ontario Museum for the 2012 opening of Hot Docs and at Toronto City Hall for Asian Heritage Month, in May 2012.

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