He's China's most renowned dissident, a human rights stalwart who has endured jail spells on trumped-up charges, along with house arrest and beatings at the hands of authorities. But before Ai Weiwei was a subversive superstar, he was an artist. And some of the pieces that initially earned him renown are now on display at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., as part of the first North American retrospective of his work.
Here you can see the famous triptych of Ai defiantly letting an ancient Han Dynasty urn slip through his fingers and smash to pieces on the floor, or Neolithic vases Ai has painted over with bright colors, or another Han Dynasty urn Ai has stamped with the Coca Cola logo. The survey also contains pieces from the years when Ai got himself in trouble with authorities -- a list he compiled of the dead children from the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province, for example.
Pictured above is a collection of river crabs made from ceramic. The name for river crabs in Chinese, he xie, sounds similar to the Mandarin word for harmonious -- a favorite buzzword of outgoing Chinese president Hu Jintao, who sought to build a "harmonious society." When government officials informed Ai in November 2010 that his studio in Shanghai would be destroyed due to improper planning paperwork, Ai announced he'd host a party there and serve river crabs. In the end, however, he was unable to attend his own event: He was under house arrest at the time.