Photos: Artist Ai Wei Wei strikes a nerve

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  1. An assistant walks across the installation "Stools" in the atrium of the Martin-Gropius-Bau exhibition hall in Berlin, Germany on March 21, 2014. The worldwide largest one-man exhibition of Ai Weiwei was dubbed "Evidence" and will be shown from April 3, 2014 to July 7, 2014. The show, which is comprised of 6,000 stools, includes works that were specifically created for the Marin-Gropius-Bau exhibition. (Kay Nietfeld / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Museum patrons walk past the "According To What?" exhibit at the Perez Art Museum Miami on February 18, 2014. On February 16, a person broke one of the vases in the exhibit and is facing a criminal charge after police say he smashed the $1 million vase in what appears to be a form of protest against the lack of lack of local artist on display. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Ai holds up his phone on speaker as he and journalists listen to the verdict of his court hearing at the courtyard of his studio in Beijing on July 20, 2012. After barring him from attending the hearing, Chinese courts upheld a $2 million fine for tax evasion. (Petar Kujundzic / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei opens his jacket to reveal a shirt bearing his portrait as he walks into the Beijing Local Taxation Bureau, Nov. 16, 2011. The acclaimed artist is also known for is criticism of the Chinese government, which held him for 81 days without charge. Ai's latest provocative piece was handed to him by the Chinese government: a $2.4 million tax bill that he says is a trumped-up effort to silence him. Supporters responded and sent in nearly $1.4 million to help. (Andy Wong / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A woman looks at an art installation named "Forever Bicycles" by artist Ai Weiwei during a media preview of the "Ai Weiwei Absent" exhibition in Taipei, Oct. 28, 2011. The exhibition is scheduled to run from October 29, 2011 to January 29, 2012 at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, and features 21sets of Ai's works, including installation pieces, photography, sculpture, and videos. (Pichi Chuang / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

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    This handout image shows Chinese artist Ai Weiwei posing with women in the nude in Beijing. Chinese police are investigating Ai Weiwei on pornography charges after his assistant was taken in for questioning. Ai told AFP authorities had accused him before of producing pornography, but he had not taken the charge seriously. The accusations apparently center on racy photographs posted on the Internet showing Ai with women, he said.

    In a chat with msnbc.com readers, Ai Weiwei responded to a question about the depictions of nudity: "What authorities are afraid of is the naked truth, the truth about ourselves and the truth of recognition." (Afp / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Ai Weiwei, a high-profile artist and ardent Chinese government critic, in Beijing on March 6, 2011. His detention appears to be part of a crackdown by the Chinese authorities that began in February amid anti-government uprisings in the Mideast. (Shiho Fukada / The New York Times via Redux Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. This picture taken in suburban Shanghai on January 11, 2011 shows the newly built Shanghai studio of Ai being demolished. The 53-year-old Ai, one of China's most famous and controversial artists, said the demolition was linked to his political activism. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Ai Weiwei, shown here on June 30, 2009 in China, was arrested while boarding a flight from Beijing to Hong Kong on April 4, 2011, as part of a crackdown to suppress a feared uprising in China. As activists moved for a Jasmine Revolution, inspired by the protests and regime changes in the Middle East, the communist nation has begun to arrest writers, activists, bloggers and other dissidents. (Sharron Lovell / Polaris) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A time-lapse photograph shows spectators leaving the National Stadium of China, also known as the Bird's Nest, after the closing ceremony of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games on August 24, 2008. Ai Weiwei was a consultant on the building of this stadium. (Michael Reynolds / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Sotheby's employee Laura Tendil poses for photographs with part of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei's handmade porcelain sunflower seeds at the auction house's premises in London on Jan. 31, 2011. (Matt Dunham / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Workers rake the seeds of Chinese Artist Ai Weiwei's Unilever Installation 'Sunflower Seeds' at The Tate Modern on October 11, 2010 in London. The installation comprises 100 million handmade porcelain replica sunflower seeds. (Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. The animal heads, like this monkey, in Ai Weiwei’s Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads were inspired by an 18th-century fountain in the Yuanming Yuan (the Garden of Perfect Brightness), an 800-acre imperial retreat near Beijing. (www.awasiany.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. The fountain acted as water clock, based on the 12 animals of the zodiac—the ox, rabbit, snake, sheep, rooster, dog, tiger, dragon, horse, monkey, boar and this animal, the rat. (www.awasiany.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Each animal represented a two-hour period of the day, and would spout water when its time came. At noon, all the animals would spout at once. This is the tiger. (www.awasiany.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Yi Lantai: West Facade of the Hall of the Calm Seas (Haiyan Tang ximian). Tenth in a suite of 20 engravings, “The European Pavilions at the Garden of Perfect Brightness,” 1783-1786. The fountain of zodiac heads is shown here. (www.awasiany.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Ai poses amid his work "Rooted Upon," which is made of 100 pieces of trees, at the "Haus der Kunst" (House of Art) during the presentation of his exhibition "So Sorry" on October 9, 2009 in Munich. (Joerg Koch / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. A man points to the installation Ai's "Template" during the "So Sorry" exhibition opening at 'Haus der Kunst' on October 11, 2009 in Munich. (Miguel Villagran / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Visitors stand behind Ai's wooden installation "without title" during the "So Sorry" exhibition on October 11, 2009, in Munich. (Miguel Villagran / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. A man looks at Ai's "Cube light" on October 9, 2009, in Munich. (Miguel Villagran / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Ai's "Remembering" at the Haus der Kunst ahead of the exhibition "So Sorry," on Oct. 8, 2009, in Munich. "Remembering" is a memorial to the victims of the devastating May 2008 quake in Sichuan province that killed 5,300 children. It is composed of 9,000 backpacks in five colors that write out a sentence in Chinese told to the artist by a mother of one of the quake victims: "For seven years she lived happily on this Earth." (Joerg Koch / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Ai's "June 1994" photograph shows his wife in front of Tiananmen Square, where the crackdown on pro-democracy protesters took place in June 1989. (www.awasiany.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Ai's "Snake Ceiling" is a memorial to the children who died in the Sichuan quake, according to the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, where this work was shown in 2009. It is made up of about 1,000 backpacks. (Watanabe Osamu / www.awasiany.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  1. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

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  2. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

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  3. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

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  4. Editor's note:
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Image: Miranda Leitsinger
By Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 5/4/2011 3:33:32 PM ET 2011-05-04T19:33:32

Twelve bronze, 800-pound statues representing the mythical figures of the Chinese zodiac were unveiledWednesday in New York. Missing from the event was the artist, Ai Weiwei, a famously vocal critic of the Chinese government who has not been seen since his arrest in China nearly a month ago.

While Chinese authorities have accused Ai, whose name is pronounced “AYE Way-Way,” of serious crimes, including tax evasion, plagiarism and bigamy, supporters of the 53-year-old artist say his penchant for questioning reality and challenging authority is the real reason for his arrest.

Alison Klayman, a filmmaker who is making a documentary about Ai, says his artwork and activism constitute "one life."

"He’s really valuable as a creative person who is free and we can hear from him," said Klayman, who has known Ai since 2008. "He’s a valuable presence and contribution to the Chinese and also global conversation. To have him not be part of it … it’s a different world.”

The artwork being shown Wednesday — it was to be unveiled Monday but was postponed after news broke that Osama bin Laden had been killed — is his first major public sculpture project. In "Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads, Ai focused on a sensitive issue in China: the looting of a famous work of art in the Chinese Emperor’s Summer Palace in the outskirts of Beijing by British and French troops in 1860. The zodiac heads, which were part of a water clock fountain designed in the 18th century by two Jesuit priests from Europe, were taken. Five have never been recovered.

The Chinese government has made recovery of the heads a priority, dispatching 85 lawyers to a Christie's auction in 2009, when one of the heads was put up for auction. Amid the uproar, the piece was withdrawn.

Deeper questions
But for Ai, the son of one China’s most famous modern poets, the heads offered an opportunity to ask deeper questions.

"Who made it, for what reason? And why were the heads lost? Are they truly lost or at the auction house? Who is buying and for what reason?" he said before his arrest, in comments made to AW Asia, the private foundation that commissioned the sculpture, and Klayman, the filmmaker.

"My work is always dealing with real or fake authenticity, and what’s the value? And how the value relates to current political and social understandings and misunderstandings," he noted. "I think (there’s) a strong humor there. So I wanted to make a complete set, including the seven original and the missing five."

Ai, who lived in New York from 1983 to 1993, interacting with other up-and-coming artists, also said the city is the ideal location for his work.

"I think to have something in public in New York is a good idea,” he said. “New York is the first cosmopolitan city I’m familiar with. It’s not one kind of people; it’s people (from) everywhere, and a lot of minorities. A lot of Jewish, Chinese, Italians, and Irish, Greeks, everybody. Blacks. So I think it’s a perfect place (for Circle of Animals.) It’s a zodiac city."

While obviously not the desired outcome of China’s government, Ai’s arrest on April 3 as he tried to board a flight from Beijing to Hong Kong has propelled him from well-known artist to international symbol of Chinese authoritarianism, his supporters say.

Beijing art scene carries on without Ai Weiwei

Before that, Ai was probably the "most important Chinese artist … to the art world and a little beyond," said Larry Warsh, founder of AW Asia. "Now his name is known everywhere ... and it’s sad and it's bittersweet. He’s known now because of what’s going on in China and reporting of this, and how the international community now is getting together via petitioning and other means to bring attention to this."

U.S. State Department official Michael Posner, who wrapped up two days of talks in China last week as part of the two nations' ongoing "human rights dialogue,” said he received no satisfaction when he asked about Ai.

'No sense of comfort'
“One of the things we expressed, which is just a simple fact, is that the arts community — the Guggenheim Museum, the Tate museum and others — have all of a sudden focused on the deterioration of the human rights situation in China because of Ai Weiwei's global prominence," he said, according to a U.S. government transcript of his comments. "What I would say is, on that case, we certainly did not get an answer that satisfies. There was no sense of comfort from the response or the lack of response."

Telephone calls and an email to the Chinese Embassy in Washington for comment on the artist and his work went unanswered.

Since his return to China, Ai’s relationship with the Chinese government has become increasingly turbulent.

Image: Supporters of artist Ai Weiwei protest in Hong Kong
Mike Clarke  /  AFP - Getty Images
Protesters holding photos of Chinese prominent artist Ai Weiwei sit on chairs lined up to make a giant Chinese character reading "imprisoned" in Hong Kong on Monday during a "chair protest" to demand the release of Ai on the eve of his one-month detention.

He consulted on the cornerstone structure of the Beijing Olympics in 2008 — the "Bird's Nest" stadium — though he later disassociated himself from the project, calling it a "fake smile" to hide China's social and political problems.

His live broadcast of government authorities demolishing his Shanghai studio in January 2011, and a series of photographs showing him "giving the finger" in front of some well-known landmarks, such as Tiananmen Square, the Eiffel Tower and the White House, further riled authorities.

A key work that spoke to his activism was "So Sorry," Ai's memorial to the devastating May 2008 earthquake in central Sichuan province that killed more than 69,000 people — including some 5,335 children. He led a citizen's initiative to get the names of the dead youth released by authorities, who had rejected such pleas.

His influence grew steadily through his blog and his use of Twitter, where he now has 82,000 followers and has posted 60,126 tweets — the last on the day he was taken into custody. There he posted details that included his interaction with authorities, including a photo of him in an elevator in Sichuan with police officers in August 2009. Another showed in a hospital bed while being treated for a head injury that he alleges stemmed from a beating by police.

"Tweeting for Ai Weiwei was a medium, and the words were the paint," Warsh said. "His blogs were shutdown prior, but he still managed to tweet and get the message out."

But while Ai has many followers among China’s urban and educated young, most Chinese don't know who he is. And those who do likely only know of him from accounts in the pro-government People's Daily and Global Times accusing him of tax evasion, plagiarism and bigamy.

Whether or not he is found guilty of those charges, supporters believe Ai was likely caught up in a crackdown triggered by ongoing anti-government protests and unrest in the Mideast, which some observers say has made Chinese authorities uneasy.

Chinese artist’s arrest shows escalating crackdown

'Negative trends'
Posner, the State Department official, noted that in recent months there have been reports of dozens of Chinese, including public interest lawyers, writers, artists and others, who "have been arrested, detained or in some cases disappeared with no regard to legal measures."

"In fact in recent months we've seen a serious back-sliding on human rights and a discussion of these negative trends dominated the human rights dialogue these past two days," he said last week.

Whatever the future holds for him, Ai's show will go on. The New York opening begins a world tour of the sculptures, which will visit London, Los Angeles, Houston, Pittsburgh and Washington. The work was earlier shown at the Sao Paolo Biennale in Brazil in 2010.

That, said Klayman, will keep his story very much in the public eye. But she said she hopes that viewers of his works will remember that the narrative is not "just about him."

"If it’s about just him, then you miss the point I think,” she said. “You should care about what's happening to … a lot of people, who are in his situation. Now he’s a symbol for that."

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