When contemporary visual artist Ai Weiwei was just a year old, his family was exiled to a labor camp in northwest China where his poet father, Ai Qing, was forced to clean communal toilets. These early experiences of surveillance, persecution, and violence at the hands of the state not only made Weiwei a born radical, but sparked a rich internal fantasy life:

“My boyhood took place under some really tough conditions, and that meant that my happiest childhood stories were my fantasies. When real life cramps a person, the imagination blossoms. My imaginings of a world different from mine sprang from snippets of language that I heard from my father. They weren’t stories themselves, but they expanded my inner world; they let me know there could be another world—as if parallel to this one—where pain and despair did not rule, where something else was possible.”

Now one of the country’s most notorious dissidents, Weiwei’s prolific career as a photographer, documentarian, sculptor, architect, and activist has been lauded internationally for its explorations of free expression, cultural tradition, and political corruption. Dedicated to challenging authority and exposing human rights violations, he’s created sweeping works in remembrance of perished schoolchildren and migrants lost at sea. Since the pandemic, he’s raised $1.4 million for human rights and refugee organizations by selling printed masks on eBay, and has just released The Way Follow Nature collection to benefit the 2022 Hawai’i Triennial.

Late last year, Weiwei’s much-anticipated memoir, 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows, was published to wide acclaim. Tracing the many forces that have shaped modern China through the lens of his life and his father’s legacy, the book illuminates the realities of producing art under, and in response to, an authoritarian regime.

Sharing some of his favorite reading material in an interview with Elle, perhaps it’s no surprise that the artist’s picks tend towards the poetic, political and philosophical. From Sartre and Marx to Warhol and Whitman, explore a list of Ai Weiwei’s recommendations below, and complement with the bookshelves of other iconic artists and activists.

Ai Weiwei’s Reading List

Existentialism Is a Humanism by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Communist Manifesto by Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx (also rec’d by Angela Davis)

The Book of Songs: The Ancient Chinese Classic of Poetry translated by Arthur Waley

Salt Seller: The Writings of Marcel Duchamp by Marcel Duchamp

The Classic of Mountains and Seas by Anonymous

Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism by Vladimir Lenin (also rec’d by Angela Davis)

Gypsy Ballads by Federico García Lorca

Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain

The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B & Back Again) by Andy Warhol

Permanent Record by Edward Snowden

Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman (also rec’d by Bob DylanBruce Springsteen, Lisa Simpson & Maya Angelou)

The Trial by Franz Kafka (also rec’d by Philip Roth, Richey Edwards & Robert Smith)

Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu (also rec’d by Bruce Lee, Jack Dorsey & Viggo Mortensen)

Philosophical Investigations by Ludwig Wittgenstein

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking (also rec’d by Herbie Hancock, MalalaRichard Branson)

“It is one of the most important interpretations and helps us understand the relationship between mankind and the universe. What we do cannot be dissociated from this interpretation, as it provides us with the biggest picture of what the universe is like.” -AW

Heavenly Questions by Qu Yuan

“An important piece of work. Qu Yuan in ancient times has already performed the highest duty of Chinese literati, that is, to ask questions. This kind of ability no longer exists in China today.” -AW

(via Elle)

Categories: Activists Artists