The 600 days of flowers that preceded the return of Ai Weiwei's passport

Today's Ai Weiwei news marks the beginning of his freedom, but also the end of his photography series "With Flowers." For 600 days, Ai shared an image daily, creating a protest piece that inspired art-lovers and activists around the world.

Have you seen this Instagram?

It's not as famous as the most recent post on Ai Weiwei's feed, the news-making photo of the artist brandishing his Chinese passport. As Ai revealed earlier today, it was returned to him after being seized by authorities four years ago.

Glance at the snapshot above and it just looks like a bushel of blooms and a bicycle. But it's also the final work in a photo series, one that's united art-lovers and advocates worldwide, "With Flowers."

In late 2013, Ai Tweeted his intention for the project, writing: "Since Nov. 30, 2013, every morning I am putting a bouquet of flowers in the basket of a bicycle outside the front door of the No. 258 Caochangdi studio until I win back the right to travel."

And that's exactly what he did.

A fresh bundle appeared outside his studio every morning, placed in a bicycle's basket. Armfuls of salmon roses and carnations appeared. Bursting lilies and snapdragons. Each day, for 600 days, there was a new photo — documented on his website and social media. The bicycle itself was an artifact left behind by a German visitor — a young man, who like Ai, had been detained by Chinese authorities. 

A few of the selections:

The project, described by the New York Times as a "pretty protest," prompted people around the world to share their own photographs in support.

Tweets came from here in Canada:

And Europe:

And Asia:

This artist in Argentina drew his flowers:

And another painted daffodils for Ai Weiwei:

If you follow the #FlowersForFreedom hashtag, you'll see how the posts keep coming in today. 

Ai discussed the photo series in the New York Times in late 2013. When asked "Why flowers?" , he said, "I think flowers are the most common language. For one thing, they're about life. And I use fresh flowers. New ones every day. In this cold weather, they may only last a day."

He continued, explaining the significance of the project: 

They are an artwork of mine that is very powerfully tied to my life. Starting on April 3, 2011, when I was taken away and detained in a secret place, until today, I haven't had a passport. I was detained for 81 days, and when I was released on June 22, on that day they said I would have to have a year on bail. Every time since then that I've asked about my passport, they've said they'd give it back. But they never have, nearly three years now. ...  When a government forces a person into detention like this, what they are doing is not legal, at the very least it's against the spirit of the law. You don't have the right to restrict where a person lives, their ability to travel.

In a past interview with CBC's q (beginning at the 26-minute mark), Ai was asked: "What if you never get your passport?" 

His response: "I will never trade my freedom with any kind of leisure or property. Freedom is in my mind."