Ai Weiwei is almost certainly China's most important artist, and one of the best in the world. That's partly because of the range and complexity of his work. It goes from dipping 2,000-year-old Chinese pots into very modern paint (and so reprising China's own erasure of its past), to designing a fabulous stadium for the people of Beijing (and repudiating it once it was clear the people wouldn't gain from it), to recording the names of the 5,000 children who died in the great Sichuan earthquake (whom authorities had refused to acknowledge). Ai is equal parts artist and activist, and insists those two halves are indivisible.
Sitting in the courtyard of his studio in Beijing, Ai recently claimed that there can't be such thing as properly Chinese art "when the works that come out of here do not reflect the genuine stuggle of the people. Do not reflect the fear and the hope of the people. Do not relate to the real emotions of this land." He tries to ensure that his work does all those things.
In Washington, the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum just launched "Ai Weiwei: According to What," the artist's first American survey, and this Web gallery presents some of its works.
– Blake Gopnik