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Ai Weiwei: Can an artist change society?

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"His art truly serves the people," says Lee Ambrozy, whose book "Ai Weiwei's Blog: Writings, Interviews, and Digital Rants, 2006-2009" has just been published by MIT Press. The blog gradually became "more daring and inflammatory," Ms. Ambrozy says, and was widely accessible, reaching all corners of the nation, which made it "a troublesome issue for the central government."

Ai's audacity in calling the regime to account "is absolutely in his blood," Munroe explains. His father, Ai Qing, was a famous poet and standard-bearer of the Communist Revolution. But in 1957 he ran afoul of party orthodoxy and was declared an enemy of the people, sent to the Gobi Desert, and forced to clean public latrines for "reeducation."

Ai Weiwei remembers the hardship of 20 years in exile, where the family literally made their own bricks to construct their dwelling in an earthen pit.

Although the family was declared "rehabilitated" in 1976 and allowed to return to Beijing after Mao Zedong's death, Ai left for New York in 1981 seeking freedom. When he returned to China in 1993, he introduced conceptual art, such as his 1994 Coca-Cola urn, where he painted the corporate logo on a Han Dynasty urn, a slap at globalization.

China's pride in Ai's international reputation turned sour when he called for a boycott of the 2008 Summer Olympics, which he termed "a fake smile China is putting on for the rest of the world." Even though he'd helped design the National Stadium (the "Bird's Nest"), he decried the hoopla of the Games as disguising the regime's greed and repression.

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