Though currently barred by the Chinese authorities from leaving his home country, artist Ai Weiwei still manages to maintain an impressive, and impactful, international presence.

Once celebrated by China and awarded high-profile commissions, such as the design of the Bird’s Nest stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Weiwei fell precipitously out of favour with the authorities over outspoken his advocacy for social justice. After criticizing the government’s whitewashed news reports of the devastating 2008 Sichuan earthquake (resulting in the deaths of thousands of schoolchildren in shoddily-constructed schools), he was beaten so badly by Chinese police that he required emergency surgery to address a potentially life-threatening head trauma.

AiWeiWei hospitalized

 Ai Weiwei in a photo posted on his twitter feed, after undergoing cranial surgery for injuries resulting from a 2009 Chengdu police beating

In 2011, he disappeared into the hands of Chinese police 2011 for 81 days under vague and unspecified charges; though barred from explicitly discussing the specifics of incarceration, unimpeachable evidence suggests that the artist was interrogated and tortured. His Shanghai studio was razed to the ground and, following his release, his every move continues to be monitored by the authorities.

But the artist refuses to be silenced; a major touring exhibition, Ai Weiwei: According to What, is currently on view at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Working in sculpture, photo, film, video and conceptual art, Weiwei has used his influence as an artist as a lightning rod to draw attention to his advocacy for freedom of expression in China and abroad. The show includes some of his most famous works, such as his photos flipping off international cultural monuments and seats of authority; his “dropping the urn” photos, and readymade coloured vases.

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 Installation view of Ai Weiwei: According to What? courtesy of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C. Top: Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn; Bottom: Colored Vases

Weiwei’s courageous crusade to speak honestly continues—he tweets constantly and posts YouTube videos often. He holds frequent interviews via satellite, like this one with CBC’s Jian Ghomeshi; and the brilliant documentary, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry provides exceptional and engrossing insight into his world and work.

In an art world with many voices, Ai Weiwei’s is certainly one of the most important to listen to—not silenced, and never sorry.

AiWeiWei Flipping

 Weiwei’s “Study in Perspective” series of photographs, flipping off (clockwise): Tiananmen, Beijing; The White House, Washington D.C.; Reichstag, Berlin; Eiffel Tower, Paris; Tiananmen, Beijing; Viking Line Ferry