Ai Weiwei is widely known as an artist and political activist, but his role as a pioneering publisher is often overlooked. After living in the United States for twelve years, Ai returned to China in 1993. He was met with questions from young artists, who, in a climate of government censorship and a near total lack of access to foreign art books, exhibition catalogues, and art magazines, were eager for information about contemporary art.
With artists Xu Bing (whose work is on view in this exhibition) and Zeng Xiaojun, Ai produced The Black Cover Book (1994), which comprises reproductions of iconic twentieth-century artworks by Marcel Duchamp and Jeff Koons, among others, as well as translations of existing art-historical and critical texts, as well as artists’ submissions and essays. The White Cover Book (1995) and The Grey Cover Book (1997), coedited by Zeng, feature more politically oriented content, including works by contemporary Chinese artists and interviews with Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer. Three thousand copies of each book were published, quickly spreading throughout China without any official system of distribution. The books were “a means of communicating art conceptually and literally,” the artist explained, and their dissemination underscored the presence of a large underground artists’ network in China.