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Ai Weiwei: Can an artist change society?

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Considered iconic pieces of the nation's cultural heritage, their repatriation is a cause célèbre in China.

Setting up a dialogue between past and present, authentic and fake, is typical of Ai's work, according to Alexandra Munroe, senior Asian Art curator at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. With "Zodiac Heads," Ms. Munroe says, "the critique is aimed at the West, not at China."

Whether people know the back story of this piece or not, the value of public art, Levin says, is that it makes "people look at familiar spaces with fresh eyes."

Ai has been spurring people to look at cyberspace with unblinkered eyes ever since he began blogging in 2005. Although the Communist Party censors dissident views, Ai leaped "the Great Firewall" in his writings until 2009 when his blog was shut down.

In more than 2,700 posts, Ai increasingly criticized the government, calling for freedom of speech and unfettered information. Hans Ulrich Obrist, curator at London's Serpentine Gallery, calls the blog "one of the greatest social sculptures of our time."

Since official media in China present a sanitized view of reality conducive to the authorities' desire to ensure social harmony, stability, and continued economic progress, the Internet is the only outlet for alternative views.

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