Ai Weiwei

In Search of Humanity

30 September – 3 March 2024 

Kunsthal Rotterdam is proud to present a large-scale exhibition by one of today’s most prominent artists, the activist, and critic of authoritarian power systems Ai Weiwei. Opening this autumn, In Search of Humanity will be his most comprehensive retrospective to date. Including cultural ready-mades, paintings, works made from LEGO bricks, sculptures, installations, photography, and video works, the exhibition will present an impressive overview of Ai Weiwei’s over-four-decades-spanning career and feature key works from all his different creative periods. 

This must-see exhibition offers an insight into the life of the world-famous Chinese artist and human rights activist Ai Weiwei, such as his childhood spent in exile as a result of the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, the suppressed students’ protests in Beijing, and his personal incarceration in 2011. His artworks show his quest for humanity and a better world. The artist believes we all have a responsibility to take action against threats to freedom of speech and violations of human rights – from the Chinese government’s intimidation techniques and the call for freedom, to warfare and the global refugee crisis.

“Everything is art. Everything is politics.”

Ai Weiwei 
Grapes (2011)
40 Wooden stools
LEGO artworks and porcelain sunflower seeds 

The exhibition shows 120 of his artworks, including Forever Bicycles (2003), a large bicycle sculpture made from bicycles without handlebars to emphasize that you are not in control, in reference to the dominant Chinese regime. With Sunflower Seeds (2010), a floor with 100 thousand hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds, Ai Weiwei challenges the ‘Made in China’ mantra that China is known for. Also shown are the iconic photographs in which he raises his middle finger to famous international monuments as symbols of power. With little LEGO bricks Ai Weiwei realises disturbing images, for instance of a drowned refugee in After the Death of Marat (2018), or of his arrest in Illumination (2019), thereby robbing this popular toy of its childlike innocence. 

Four decades worth of artworks 

In Search of Humanity pays attention to all periods in Ai Weiwei’s wide-ranging career and offers insight into the aesthetic principles of his artistry. Characteristic of his earliest art are his childhood memories from China. In these surprising and mysterious works, he combines objects that have no logical or functional connection: a shovel in a fur coat, for instance, or two shoes that appear to be embracing each other like mating dung beetles. Ai Weiwei regularly shows the remains of destruction in his work. The artist refers to the Chinese craft that is being lost, but the works also reflect his life as a dissident and criticism of the Chinese government.

Zodiac (Dragon) (2019) LEGO bricks, 190 × 190 cm
A lasting testimony to inhumanity

Ai Weiwei’s ready-mades are everyday objects that he gives a new meaning to by elevating them to the level of art. Examples of this are Julian Assange’s treadmill that now symbolises his hopeless situation, or a toy panda stuffed with classified NSA documents. In this way he puts topical political issues on prominent display. The artist wants to prevent us from forgetting about these important problems as we have often gotten use to their representation in the media. Ai for instance manages to direct our attention to the catastrophe of migration with an artwork featuring lifejackets that were left on the beach by refugees. 

The powerful message of art 

Ai Weiwei’s metamorphoses and transformations appear to be useless monuments to things. The resulting confusion gives us valuable food for thought, especially at a time like today when democracy is in under attack. The exhibition shows how powerful art can be. 

“Can a civilization that is built on the misfortune of others carry on forever?”

Ai Weiwei 

In Search of Humanity is realised in collaboration with Studio Ai Weiwei, Albertina Modern in Vienna and guest curator Dieter Buchhart.