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Ai Weiwei Online Teacher Resource


Ai Weiwei creates artworks using a variety of media that engage with and question political, social, and historical contexts in China and globally.  Through his artwork, Ai Weiwei advocates for basic human values including freedom of speech, freedom of expression, the value of human life, and individual rights.  By exploring his artwork, students are encouraged to examine these fundamental issues, and how art can be used as a form of individual and collective activism.

Key Themes:

social justice
human rights
political activism
cultural history
individuals & communities
social media
memory and remembrance

Art Vocabulary:

contemporary art
installation art
new media
found objects
mixed media
community art
conceptual art

Artist’s Timeline:

Who is Ai Weiwei?  How have the artist's personal history and experiences shaped his ideas and artwork?  When you enter the exhibition, there is a timeline of the artist's life for your reference.  As you explore his artwork, consider his influences during these three time periods using the following discussion questions provided:

  • Early Years – Ai Weiwei’s father, Ai Qing, was a poet.  He was declared an enemy of the state during the Anti-Rightist Movement, a campaign intended to identify critics of Mao Zedong’s government. Ai’s family was exiled to a labour camp in northwest China for eighteen years.  When the Cultural Revolution ended with Mao’s death, they returned to Beijing.
    How did Ai Weiwei’s experiences in his early years influence his perspective of the government and his approach to artmaking?
  • Life in the USA – As a young man, Ai Weiwei moved to the US to attend the Parsons School of Design in New York City.  He lived there for twelve years and discovered the artists who would become his main artistic influences: Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, and Jasper Johns.
    How did Duchamp’s ready-mades, Warhol’s pop art, and Johns’ abstract expressionist paintings influence Ai Weiwei’s artwork?
  • Return to China – Upon Ai Weiwei’s return to China, he actively supported experimental contemporary Chinese art and young artists.  In 2008, his international reputation grew with his involvement in the design and criticism of the "Bird’s Nest" stadium for the Summer Olympics in Beijing, and his use of social media to recruit volunteers for a citizens’ investigation into the poorly constructed schoolhouses that collapsed during an earthquake in Sichuan Province.  Successive acts of individual and collective activism have propelled Ai into the international spotlight.
    How has Ai Weiwei’s role as an artist changed in the last twenty years?  How has Ai intertwined the roles of artist and political activist?

Discussion and Activity Ideas:

  • Encourage Curiosity – Prior to their AGO visit, have students preview the slideshow of artwork images from the exhibition and record at least one question they have for each artwork. During their AGO visit, have students bring their questions and use them to help focus their exploration and to start discussions in pairs or small groups.
  • Snake Ceiling – On May 12, 2008, a massive earthquake in China’s Sichuan province killed approximately 90,000 people. Ai Weiwei created a serpentine sculpture titled Snake Ceiling, made of backpacks, to commemorate the more than 5,000 school children who were killed when their shoddily constructed schools collapsed.
    • Artistic Influences – Compare and contrast this artwork by Ai Weiwei with an artwork by Marcel Duchamp, an artist who influenced Ai through his use of ready-mades.  What are the similarities and differences?
    • Memory and Remembrance – On August 18, 2013, close to 300 people joined together at the Art Gallery of Ontario for the community art performance Say Their Names, Remember. During this four-hour event, participants read aloud the names of the 5,200 school children who perished in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Watch the performance - How would you remember the earthquake victims using art?
    • Behind-the-scenes at the AGO – Take a behind-the-scenes look at how Snake Ceiling was installed through this time-lapse video. What do you think are the challenges with installing this work?
  • Art as Activism – During your visit, be sure to stop in the lobby of the AGO’s main entrance to view Toronto-based interventionist artist Sean Martindale’s sculpture Love The Future / Free Ai Weiwei, which was created during Ai's detention by Chinese authorities in spring 2011. How has this artist used art as a tool for activism?
  • Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads – Inspired by the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac and designed in the 1700s by two European Jesuits serving in the imperial court, Ai’s work 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. What is the difference between cultural influence and cultural appropriation?
  • Ai Weiwei Video Chat – Due to Ai Weiwei’s political activism, the artist’s physical movements continue to be restricted by the Chinese government. As part of AGO’s September First Thursday event, Ai Weiwei joined AGO visitors for rare live video chat with AGO CEO and Director Matthew Teitelbaum. Watch the video and consider this – how would you communicate your ideas as an artist if you could not leave your country?
  • Instagram, Tweet, and Have Your Say! – Students are invited to share their thoughts on the issue of freedom of expression at a drawing and video response station in the exhibition, by following Ai Weiwei on instagram and posting their own pictures of the exhibition, and by joining the conversation on Twitter using #aiwwAGO. What does freedom of expression mean to you?


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