With the media's extensive coverage of Ai Weiwei's politically-charged detention in China, reports have consistently described the provocateur as the "most important Chinese artist of his generation." While the epithets are well-deserved and increase the stakes of the ongoing story, thinking about Ai's art this way fails to go deeper into his message.
Ai's most famous works are so noteworthy on a formal level that the views behind them can be lost on the international stage. Much of the artist's earlier career consisted of subtle critiques--ones that could get past China's strict cultural policies--of the country's attitude toward its history, and his pieces are often deeply enriched by a little explanation. The BBC video below looks beyond Sunflower Seeds or the Bird's Nest Stadium, examining Ai's retrospective at London's Lisson Gallery and discussing some of the issues with which he angered the Chinese government in the first place.
Ai Weiwei, Lisson Gallery, 52-54 and 29 Bell Street, London NW1 5DA, Through July 16, 2011.