Chinese authorities may have confined Ai Weiwei to Beijing, but he remains in the public eye, with a retrospective of his work coming to Toronto and the dissident artist enlisted to create new work on behalf of Germany for 2013's Venice Biennale.

The Art Gallery of Ontario has confirmed it will host a retrospective by the famed Chinese artist. The show will include sculpture, photography, installation, video and audio projects.

'This exhibition has been an opportunity to reexamine past work and communicate with audiences from afar' —Ai Weiwei

Many of Ai’s recent works have been about the victims of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. They include Sichuan Earthquake Photos and Snake Ceiling, an installation that joins a snaking line of backpacks representing the children who died in poorly constructed schools that collapsed during the quake.

These pieces will be part of Ai Weiwei: According to What, an exhibit that opens at the Smithsonian Institution’s Hirshhorn Museum in October before moving on to the AGO in Toronto in the new year. There are just five North American stops for the show.

Ai Weiwei: According to What? is the first North American survey of the Chinese artist’s work.  According to a statement released by the Hirshhorn, it includes:

  • Cube Light (2008), a seminal work in the artist’s chandelier series.
  • Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995/2009), a photographic triptych of the smashing of an ancient object.
  • Remembrance (2008), an audio recording of the names of child victims of the earthquake.
  • Surveillance Camera (2010), in which he creates a marble replica of the technology used to watch him.
  • He Xie, an installation of more than 3,000 porcelain river crabs.

'Continual process of self-expression'

"We think that Ai Weiwei is one of the most important artists working in the world today," AGO director Matthew Teitelbaum said in an email.

"The AGO is proud to be the first Canadian museum to present an extensive survey of his work. This exhibition will provide our visitors with an opportunity to engage in a dialogue about issues of art, freedom of expression, nationalism, economic power, digital communication and human rights."

"I’ve experienced dramatic changes in my living and working conditions over the past few years," Ai said of According to What, which was curated by Mami Kataoka, chief curator at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo.

"This exhibition has been an opportunity to reexamine past work and communicate with audiences from afar. I see it as a stream of activities rather than a fixed entity. It is part of a continual process in self-expression."

Representing Germany

On Wednesday, German officials announced they have commissioned Ai to create a new piece for its pavilion at the 2013 edition of the Venice Biennale, one of the world’s most influential art shows. 

Susanne Gaensheimer, director of the Museum of Modern Art in Frankfurt, revealed that Ai would be one of four artists to create work for Germany. He will join Indian photographer Dayanita Singh, German film director, writer and producer Romuald Karmakar and South African photographer Santu Mofokeng.

"Contemporary artistic production in Germany, as elsewhere, is characterized by multilayered forms of cooperation between artists from all over the world and by international intellectual and cultural exchange," she said in a statement.

Ai’s work, including Sunflower Seeds for the Tate Museum and the touring sculpture Circle of Animals: Zodiac Heads, has earned him a global following.

In 2011, Ai disappeared for 81 days after being arrested while trying to board a flight in Beijing. When he reappeared — following an international outcry — the Chinese government charged him with tax evasion and demanded about $2 million US in back taxes.

He had planned to set up a Berlin studio before his detention and had been offered a university teaching post in Germany that year.

Ai's Beijing home remains under heavy surveillance and he has been stripped of his passport. The artist's supporters charge that it is his criticism of the Chinese regime over human rights offences and corruption, rather than any "economic crimes," that has landed him in trouble.