Five years ago last week, artist Ai Weiwei was released by Chinese authorities following an 81-day detention at an unknown location. He was watched closely by two guards in a windowless room after being taken from an airport in Beijing and held on suspicion of tax evasion.

Ai Weiwei. Photo: Instagram.

The artist was detained during a crackdown on dissent following calls for “Jasmine Revolution” protests in China inspired by uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa.

After he was released, Ai created an art installation called S.A.C.R.E.D. that recreated scenes from his detention, and exhibited it at the Venice Biennale art festival in 2013.

S.A.C.R.E.D. Photo: Wikicommons.
S.A.C.R.E.D. Photo: Wikicommons.

While Ai was detained, people around the world called for his release.

Photo: Facebook/Free Ai Weiwei.
A 2011 demonstration in Toronto calling for Ai’s release. Photo: Facebook/Free Ai Wei Wei.
The Tate Museum in London, where Ai exhibited Sunflower Seeds, in 2011. Photo: Wikicommons.

One year after his detention, Ai released a self-surveillance project. He set up webcams around his house and broadcast a live feed to the public from a website representing the 24-hour police surveillance he lived under since his release. The Chinese authorities ordered Ai to shut the webcams down after 48 hours.

Photo: Screenshot from

Ai was released on bail, but was not allowed out of the country. In November 2013, he started placing flower arrangements in the basket of a bicycle outside his studio to mark the days until the end of his confinement. After 600 flower arrangements, Ai posted a picture on Instagram saying that the government had returned his passport.

With Flowers, an art project Ai started to document his …Photo: Twitter/@mariemcinerney.


A photo posted by Ai Weiwei (@aiww) on

Ai’s tax documents, which were seized by the government. Photo: Instagram/@aiww.

Speaking about his time in detention, Ai told the BBC in 2014: “You start to realise your life has been completely cut off from the past, and everything you’re familiar with.”

“You never know what kind of treatment they will do to you. Nothing protects you, there’s no knowledge you can tell anybody. You cannot see lawyers, you cannot see your family, everything is so restricted.”

Catherine Lai

Catherine is a Canadian journalist and photographer who lived in Beijing for almost two years, working in TV and online media. Aside from Hong Kong and mainland affairs, she is also interested in urban spaces, art and feminism. She holds a BA in Literature and Art History from the University of British Columbia.