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Ai Weiwei: Can an artist change society?

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei's provocative work spotlights human rights and pushes government boundaries.

By Carol StricklandContributor / May 4, 2011

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei interacted with his work ‘Sunflower Seeds’at London’s Tate Modern gallery last fall.

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In a video smuggled to a recent TED conference (which he was forbidden to attend) Chinese artist Ai Weiwei insisted, "Art is about social change." Apparently, the potential for change spearheaded by China's most celebrated global art star troubles China's leaders. On April 3 authorities seized Mr. Ai, who disappeared into a news blackout illuminated only by vague allegations of "economic crimes."

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Although a show of his art has been "indefinitely postponed" in the People's Republic of China, a public art piece by Ai, "Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads," is on view at 59th Street and Fifth Avenue from May 4 to July 15. "It's a piece that resonates on lots of different levels," according to Kate Levin, commissioner of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs. Consisting of 12 four-foot-high bronze animal heads, it's a replica of an 18th-century water clock at the imperial Summer Palace outside Beijing. While the tiger, rabbit, and monkey heads may seem like whimsical carousel characters, the background of the originals adds complexity and ambiguity.

Ai, Ms. Levin says, "is inviting people to think in an informed, engaged way about history," and this piece has "a number of rich and painful associations," since the originals were hauled off by European looters in 1860.

Considered iconic pieces of the nation's cultural heritage, their repatriation is a cause célèbre in China.

Setting up a dialogue between past and present, authentic and fake, is typical of Ai's work, according to Alexandra Munroe, senior Asian Art curator at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. With "Zodiac Heads," Ms. Munroe says, "the critique is aimed at the West, not at China."

Whether people know the back story of this piece or not, the value of public art, Levin says, is that it makes "people look at familiar spaces with fresh eyes."

Ai has been spurring people to look at cyberspace with unblinkered eyes ever since he began blogging in 2005. Although the Communist Party censors dissident views, Ai leaped "the Great Firewall" in his writings until 2009 when his blog was shut down.

In more than 2,700 posts, Ai increasingly criticized the government, calling for freedom of speech and unfettered information. Hans Ulrich Obrist, curator at London's Serpentine Gallery, calls the blog "one of the greatest social sculptures of our time."

Since official media in China present a sanitized view of reality conducive to the authorities' desire to ensure social harmony, stability, and continued economic progress, the Internet is the only outlet for alternative views.

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