AAH-194 Visual Culture in Communist China

A Union College Art History Course, Spring 2023

Author: Georgia Baer

Ai Weiwei Exhibition Theme

Ai Weiwei, Study of Perspective: Tiananmen
Color Photograph

Ai Weiwei is known for his architectural designs as well as his shocking works of art. His artworks are centered around modernism while also inspired by Dadaism and Duchamp. Ai Weiwei’s avant-garde sense of style shocked viewers because of the confrontational nature of his works. His father, Ai Qing, was a well-known poet specifically known for his criticisms of the communist party. Ai Weiwei spent sixteen years of his youth in a remote place in China where the ability to express individualism was restricted. His father was punished and forced into hard labor because of his radical beliefs. Ai Qing was forced to clean toilets for five years and burned his educational books in order not to get caught. Ai Weiwei grew up watching his father being punished for his individualism which ultimately leads Ai Weiwei to find his unique artistic style.

For my exhibition, I will be focusing on individualism and breaking the standards. I found it so interesting how Ai is not afraid to break the standard of what is considered “normal” in the art world. Ai Weiwei highlights the importance of not being afraid to express his beliefs. It is also interesting how Ai critiques the communist party while also emphasizing early Chinese avant-garde styles. In the representative image, Study of Perspective: Tiananmen, Ai Weiwei takes a photo of himself giving the middle finger in Tiananmen Square. Specifically, Ai is giving the middle finger to Mao in order to show that he is rebelling against authority. Ai Weiwei also took the same photo at other landmarks in France and the United States. The focus of this specific work is to show tourists that authority should be questioned. More importantly, the government itself should be challenged if it is affecting people negatively. This image is a great example of Ai Weiwei challenging society and highlighting the flaws of government that should be made aware. Ai Weiwei continues to create artwork focusing on the importance of self-expression no matter what the reactions might be.


Ai, Weiwei, Karen Smith, Hans Ulrich Obrist, and Bernhard Fibicher. Ai Weiwei. London: Phaidon, 2013. 

Image Source:

Publicdelivery. “Ai Weiwei Gives World His Middle Finger.” Public Delivery – Art non-profit, July 8, 2022. https://publicdelivery.org/ai-weiwei-study-of-perspective/.

Interesting Link – Ai Weiwei


Ai Weiwei’s website explains some of his films he directed and the background behind his creative decisions. In addition to being an architect and working in design, Ai Weiwei is also a director. His website explains the vision behind his recent memoir titled, “1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows.” This film discusses Ai Weiwei’s childhood and how his father’s counter-revolutionary beliefs influenced the manner in which he grew up. Considering Ai Weiwei’s father’s creativity was restrained, Ai finds it important to share his political beliefs and fight for human rights. I think that this website is a great resource as it dives into the driving forces behind Ai Weiwei’s means of expression.


Ai, Weiwei. Ai Weiwei Films. Accessed May 4, 2023. https://www.aiweiwei.com/.

Ai Weiwei “Sunflower Seeds”

Ai Weiwei “Sunflower Seeds” 

Porcelain, ink


“Sunflower Seeds” by Ai Weiwei consists of 100 million handmade, individually painted porcelain sunflower seeds. When piled up, these handcrafted sunflower seeds look like a mound of unrecognizable shapes. Once examined up close, the sunflower seeds can be recognized. This installation was first displayed at the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern in London. 

The idea for this artwork came from what Ai Weiwei witnessed as a child in China during Mao’s rule. When Ai’s community would gather together following Mao’s order, everyone would eat sunflower seeds because they were so nervous. Ai Weiwei’s father was a counter-revolutionary and would be called on stage at these meetings and have to endure insults. The sunflower seeds were eaten in order to calm him down and gave everyone an outlet to soothe their nerves.

The production of the sunflower seeds took place in a city famous for its porcelain, Jingdezhen. The pieces of stone are first broken down with iron hammers and then pulverized into a powder. The powder is mixed with water until it is fully skimmed, leaving a thick paste behind. Before the mixture becomes too hard, it is divided into small bricks and then sent to porcelain factories in order to refine the powder even more. The porcelain is mixed with clay and then hand-pressed into sunflower-shaped molds. The seeds are then painted with black ink. Ai Weiwei makes a comment about the importance of having many different painters: “Each one is different, you show it through your own control of the brush and your breath and your own body gestures. You pick a seed up and you put on ink, more ink or less ink, lightly or thickly painted. Then you turn it over and place it down. It’s such a beautiful act” (Ai 2014:104). The differences between each sunflower seed is what Ai embraced.

This installation involved thousands of individuals who worked together in order to produce something bigger. The importance of this piece is that the little seeds create a form bigger than itself. Ai Weiwei wanted the viewers to question everything about this piece. He wanted people to wonder and look closer to figure out the meaning and process behind this work.

Works Cited

Weiwei, Ai, and Anthony Pins. Spatial Matters: Art Architecture and Activism. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press , 2014.



Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei is a contemporary artist working in the fields of architecture, design, exhibition planning, and publishing. Ai is well known for working on the “bird’s nest” that was built for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. He started off with architectural projects, but transitioned to more installations that focussed on the importance of showcasing human life. When the May 2008 Sichuan earthquake struck killing around 5,000 children, Ai wanted to shine light on the situation and began creating artwork that explored human rights issues. One of Ai’s first exhibitions titled, According to What?, focuses on the political and historical context of China and how the rest of the world can find common ground using their own context. Ai Weiwei approaches contemporary art by centering attention on the context instead of the concept. Ai deemed it important for the viewers to understand where the artist was coming from or going through when the artwork was formed. 

Works Cited

Ai Weiwei. According to What? Prestel Verlag, 2012.

Georgia Baer

Hi! My name is Georgia and I’m an English major with a minor in Studio Arts. I’m not familiar with Chinese art and decided to take this class to learn more about the context in which this art was created. I first started oil painting landscapes a couple years ago, but now I’ve been experimenting with different mediums and starting to work abstractly. Other than art, I love reading in my free time.

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