Ahead of His New Exhibition in Canada, Chinese Dissident Artist Ai Weiwei Calls Out the West's 'Complicity' in Political Tensions

  • TORONTO, Canada
  • /
  • January 31, 2019

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Ai Weiwei, 2012
photo: Gao Yuan

Ai Weiwei, one of the world’s most influential artists and activists, and one of China’s most formidable critics, has released a statement through Toronto's Gardiner Museum in response to heightened diplomatic tensions between China and Canada since the arrest (at the behest of the U.S.) of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou and China's detainment of two Canadian citizens on suspicion of endangering state security.

The statement comes ahead of the opening of Ai Weiwei: Unbroken at the Gardiner Museum on February 28, an exhibition that has taken on new significance amid this ongoing political conflict.


“The Chinese government’s recent actions are unsurprising. They have been acting in their own way, with their own set of ideologies and practices, for the past 70 years.

Domestically, the disappearances and forced detentions without due process are common. I would be surprised if that was not the case every time considering China does not have an independent judicial system. There are no clear laws, only interpretations of the law based on the Party’s interests. China is not a nation under rule of law. China is a nation under rule of the Party.

Ai Weiwei, Zodiac (2018).
Ai Weiwei Studio and the Gardiner Museum

Today, China is the second biggest economic power in the world, only behind the United States of America. Though China has quickly developed, the West has also greatly benefited from this partnership through the exploitation of many Chinese basic rights in terms of labor, environmental damage, corruption, among other such issues.

The West has pretended to not notice or, more insidiously, has been a willing partner. They are the hidden force behind China’s rise. And while China has become an ever more powerful machine, it still has not changed its authoritarian tendencies.

The argument often repeated in the West is that strong economic growth in repressive states inevitably lead to the embrace of human rights and democracy. An understanding of the history of dictatorships tells us that this is not a credible assumption. Dictators have never voluntarily relinquished power and control. Change has always come abruptly, either through revolution or another equally disastrous event. There is no precedence for this kind of gradual shift and the West understands this well.

China has been the perfect dream of the West. Under the banner of globalization, China has been able to do everything that the West could not and have been instrumental in helping the democratic states become what they are today. The West’s apparent conflict with the situation in China is because of its refusal to acknowledge its complicity in creating this monstrous regime.

In the end, nothing will change. China completely ignores so-called universal values. It is under the control of a one-party system where its citizens have never had the right to vote. And without voting rights, there is no responsibility or trust in society. There is no independent press or media. What can you expect? I think that China has done quite well under those circumstances. The real problem comes from the West where there is a complete lack of vision and responsibility, only an interest in profiting from the status quo.”


Ai Weiwei: Unbroken features iconic ceramic works, including Sunflower Seeds and Coca Cola Vase, recent works in blue-and-white porcelain that depict the global refugee crisis, and objects in other media, including wood and marble, that subvert notions of traditional craftsmanship and Chinese cultural identity with pointedly political imagery. The exhibition also marks the international debut of a new large-scale LEGO zodiac.

Ai Weiwei: Unbroken will be on display at the Gardiner Museum in Toronto from February 28 to June 9, 2019.


Ai Weiwei (b. 1957, Beijing) is among the world’s most celebrated contemporary artists and one of China’s most formidable critics. His sculptures, photographs, installations, and public artworks often repurpose traditional Chinese forms and materials to address today’s most pressing social concerns. An outspoken human rights activist, Ai was arrested by Chinese authorities on April 3, 2011 and held incommunicado for eighty-one days. In July 2015 he was granted the return of his passport to travel abroad despite ongoing government surveillance. Throughout, Ai has continued to extend his practice across multiple disciplines, using exhibitions, documentary films, and social media to communicate with a global audience.

Ai Weiwei attended the Beijing Film Academy and the Parsons School of Design in New York. He has received the Chinese Contemporary Art Award (2008); an honorary doctorate from the Faculty of Politics and Social Science, University of Ghent, Belgium (2010); the Skowhegan Medal (2011); and the Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent from the Human Rights Foundation (2012).

Ai Weiwei’s work has appeared in major exhibitions such as Documenta XII, Kassel, Germany (2007) and Biennial de Sáo Paulo, Brazil (2010), and has been featured in solo exhibitions at institutions such as the Mori Art Museum, Tokyo (2009); Haus der Kunst, Munich, Germany (2009); Tate Modern, London, U.K. (2010); Asia Society Museum, New York, NY (2011); the Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, Germany (2014); @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz, organized by the FOR-SITE Foundation in collaboration with the National Park Service, San Francisco, CA (2014); Royal Academy of Arts, London, UK (2015); National Gallery of Victoria, AU (2015); Le Bon Marché, Paris, France (2016); the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, Grand Rapids, MI (2017); and the Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C. (2012, 2017).

The Gardiner Museum is among the few museums in the world focused on ceramics, and is one of the world’s most notable specialty museums. For more information, please visit: www.gardinermuseum.com.

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