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Ai Weiwei has become a symbol of dissidence worldwide. It shows in his art.

A black-and-white photo of Ai Weiwei where he holds both of his eyes open with two hands and stares into the camera.
Ai Weiwei.
Image courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio.

Ai Weiwei has been called an art world superstar, a hero, and a martyr. His work has been displayed in the world’s most prestigious modern art museums and some of his sculptures and photographs sell for millions of dollars apiece. He is considered one of the most well-known contemporary Chinese artists.

He has a new exhibition opening at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum Wednesday that emphasizes free speech and expression. It features 170 portraits of individuals from more than 30 countries who Ai considers to be activists, prisoners of conscience, or advocates of free speech, including Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning. Each portrait was made of thousands of plastic LEGO bricks.

It’s a complicated topic for Ai, who has become a symbol of dissidence worldwide for his outspoken criticism of the Chinese government and his subsequent detainment and surveillance by authorities there. But he’s also drawn criticism for allegedly exploiting his fame to promote his art and for being a “terrible artist.” While British art critic Alastair Sooke called Ai the “most important artist alive,” some say that he’s an activist, not an artist.

“We can definitely consider him as both an artist and an activist, and sometimes I think his role of activism actually overrides his other identity,” said Ying-chen Peng, assistant professor of art with a specialization in Chinese art history at American University.

Even the Hirshhorn refused to give Ai a decisive title, saying in an email, “He’s moved beyond the labels.”

Ai, for part, told 60 Minutes in May that, “I think artist and activist are the same thing. As an artist, you’ll always be an activist. I think every art, if it’s relevant, has to be political.”

Now Ai has brought his art, and his politics, to Washington.

Images from his latest exhibition at the Hirshhorn are below:

Lego portraits of dissidents lay on a cement floor.
Installation view of Ai Weiwei: Trace at Hirshhorn at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 2017.
Cathy Carver
Close up of colorful lego portraits on the floor
A close up of the installation.
Cathy Carver
A close up of the colorful lego portraits on the floor
A close up of the installation.
Cathy Carver

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