Ai Weiwei's list of accolades includes the Vaclav Havel prize for creative dissent, Man of the Year nods from Time magazine and GQ, and ArtReview magazine has twice included him on its list of the top 100 most powerful artists, but when an exhibit of his work opens at Toronto's Art Gallery of Ontario on Saturday he will not be in attendance.

The dissident Chinese artist is subject to a kind of house arrest in China, but that has not prevented his work from travelling abroad.

Ai's politically charged multimedia artworks have raised the ire of China’s government, resulting in him being stripped of his passport after being jailed in 2011 for tax evasion — a charge his supporters claim was punishment for his activism. 

The exhibit According to What? is on a North American tour, and the AGO is its only Canadian stop.

"It's pretty big for us," said AGO director Matthew Teitelbaum.

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The installation piece, He Xie, is the artist's response to the demolition of his studio in Shanghai, representing a meal of crabs he served to supporters in protest of the studio’s destruction. He Xie is the Chinese word for river crab, and the piece is composed of some 3,000 porcelain crabs. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

"We’re interested in artists who engage the community in conversation and Ai does that," Teitelbaum told CBC News when asked if hosting an Ai Weiwei exhibit was a "good get" for the gallery.

According to What? is one of the most significant exhibitions of contemporary art the AGO has hosted in years and the lengths to which the gallery went to install it are a testament to the artist’s stature.

Ai is "very important," said Scott, who invokes the names of Warhol and Picasso when describing his art and influences.

Contemporary artists like Ai "live in our time and experience the world we all experience," said Scott.

His visibility through social media (Ai’s Twitter account, which was shut down temporarily, has over 200,000 followers) and his image as a champion of human rights in China has earned the artist a global following typically associated with rock stars. His popularity is in part due to his "situation," said Scott, referring to Ai’s inability to leave China.

Ai Weiwei by the numbers

  • 81 days spent in detention
  • 15 surveillance cameras surround Ai's Beijing studio
  • 50 pet cats Ai shares his compound with
  • 30 works of art featured in Ai Weiwei: According to What?
  • 161 crates needed to transport the exhibition

Scott said there were challenges installing Ai’s more expansive pieces without the artist’s presence.

The hundreds of ceramic crabs that compose the installation piece He Xie arrived at the AGO in 20 crates, and Kippe — composed of over 6,000 pieces of ancient reclaimed temple wood and iron bars — weighs hundreds of kilograms.

The AGO exhibit also includes a massive white wall lined with the names and birth dates of the 5,212 children killed in the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province and a sculpture composed of over 38 tonnes of rebar collected from the disaster site. Teahouse, an installation that incorporates three miniature houses made of densely packed dried tea weighing more than one tonne each, required a structural engineer to install.

"It's the heaviest show we’ve ever put on," said Teitelbaum.

Along with the installations, According to What? showcases a range of the 55-year-old artist’s work, including the pop-inflected remixes of Han Dynasty urns titled Coloured Vases, a bouquet of wooden Qing Dynasty stools and hundreds of photographs.

Art for politics sake?

For Ai, there is "no difference" between art and politics, said Mami Kataoka, the curator of the artist's North American tour. It's an opinion Kataoka formed through numerous meetings and conversations with the artist at his Beijing studio. 

"Art gives people the strength to respond to our social-political conditions," Ai wrote in an email exchange with The Canadian Press.

"I live in one of the most extreme political societies of the world, and it sees freedom of expression as an enemy of the state," Ai said.

His artwork is best known for its political undertones exemplified in his artistic response to his country's handling of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. In the same year, Ai designed the Beijing Olympics' iconic Bird's Nest stadium, only to disavow it, saying it had become a symbol of autocracy. In 2009, he underwent surgery to relieve bleeding in the brain, which allegedly occurred at the hands of police.

"More than anything, I wish Ai could see this exhibition," Scott said. "Every time we make an exhibit with a contemporary artist, it's a time to celebrate that artist."

Despite the acclaim, the fame that has followed him continues to puzzle Ai.

"I'm surprised that somebody like me would even become famous, just for demanding very basic truths and seeking ways to survive with some dignity," Ai told The Canadian Press.

According to What? runs at the AGO from Aug. 17 until Oct. 27.

With files from The Canadian Press