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Happy Birthday, Ai Weiwei!

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Today is the (disputed) birthday of Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei. The successful sculptor, architect and open critic of the Chinese government turns 55 today, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Ai comes from a family of dissident sentimentality, as his mother and poet father were sent to a labor camp in the 1950s for denouncing the Anti-Rightist Movement of the Communist Party in China. From this alternative political position, Ai entered the world of Chinese avant-garde art. His interest in altering readymade objects soon took him to New York in the 1980s, where he studied at Parsons School of Design. When Ai's father became ill, the artist made his way back to Beijing, where he set up the Beijing East Village, and began publishing literature on what he considered to be a new generation of Chinese artists.

Throughout his career, Ai has created a number of globally exhibited works through his studio, FAKE Design. Most notably, he worked as a consultant for the Beijing Olympics "Bird's Nest" stadium with the Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron. But much of his work has retained a sense of political and social meaning, as he continues to confront the political theater in China today. His 2008 exhibit "Snake Ceiling," which consisted of a serpentine installation of hundreds of black and white kid-sized backpacks, pays homage to the 2008 earthquake that killed thousands of children trapped in a collapsed school buildings in China.

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While Ai has been praised internationally for his art, the provocative and subversive nature of his work, accompanied by his political outspokenness, has triggered a wave of repression from Chinese authorities. Ai was jailed for 81 days in 2010 for allegedly evading taxes amounting to $2.4 million in penalties, and while Ai maintains that his imprisonment was politically motivated, he was forced to pay a $1.3 million bond. Many of his supporters and fellow dissidents rushed to his aid, contributing loans online and in person. Some people were such fervent supporters that they actually tossed cash over the walls of his Berlin studio to help free the artist.

Since his arrest, Ai has been a stringent proponent of the internet as a new frontier for politically-minded Chinese citizens. His Twitter has over 110,000 followers, whose devotion to the artist is formidable. When police began investigating Ai Weiwei's assistant for spreading pornography online after a photo was detained featuring Ai in the nude, his fans protested the allegation that nudity was synonymous with pornography by tweeting naked pictures of themselves. Ai has used the web to create a performance piece out of his life and show that there is always space free from censorship and authority. He also launched WeiweiCam.com, a website mocking government surveillance that tracked Ai as he worked and slept, which was shut down after only two days.

Last year Ai was named ArtReview's 'most powerful artist,' showing his worldwide impact to the artistic and activist communities. His passion and bravery present an optimistic view of art's possibilities. He is not only a talented artist but one of the most influential spirits of our time. Weiwei once said: “I wouldn’t say I’ve become more radical: I was born radical.”

We are so happy you were born, sir. Happy birthday, Ai Weiwei!

See photos from "Ai Weiwei, Absent" at Taipei's Fine Arts Museum below:

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