Zodiac: A Graphic Memoir by Ai Weiwei, with Elettra Stamboulis & Gianluca Costantini

This gorgeous hardcover graphic memoir by celebrated artist Ai Weiwei is a must-have for his fans, and a must-read for anyone who cares about modern art and, particularly, its intersection with political protest.

For those unfamiliar, Ai Weiwei is a conceptual artist, sometime designer of architecture and longtime political dissident against the Communist government of China. His father Ai Qing was a famous poet who fell afoul of Mao Zedong and was forced into internal exile, living with his wife and young child in subsistence poverty on the fringes of the Gobi Desert. Despite their hard circumstances, Ai Qing did his best to instill history, folklore and a sense of justice into his only child, who would grow up to be the internationally acclaimed artist that he is today. Now Ai Weiwei has produced a book, illustrated by Gianluca Costantini, that loosely ties stories of the Chinese zodiac with important milestones of his own life.

To those not already familiar with Ai Weiwei’s life story, the chapters can feel a little disjointed: looking up his history certainly helped me process the vignettes and allusions better. Some of the chapters are more loosely tied to the zodiac than others, tho each strives to ground its connection in a brief but usually excellent explanation of the accompanying myth and characteristics. Tho perhaps I say that as someone familiar with the astrology: a friend with a better grounding in Ai Weiwei’s art but less knowledge of the eastern zodiac certainly had the exact opposite impression that I did (hi, Emily!)

Regardless of your familiarity with either subject, this book is a powerful manifesto of the artist’s purpose. “Any artist who isn’t an activist is a dead artist,” he proclaims in the closing pages, having chronicled here not only his well-known political clashes with and persecution by the Chinese government, but also his dissatisfaction with the American idea of civilization, as well as his near-absolutist belief in freedom of speech. His most powerful quote, however, comes much earlier in the book, as he muses on his fears during his detention by the Chinese government:

If you asked me, it was not my freedom I was worried about. I was just afraid of losing my conscience. Or losing my compassion for humanity, losing the freedom to be critical — those are frightening.

Gianluca Costantini’s art ably illustrates the proceedings, faithfully reproducing likenesses not only of real-life people and places, but also of Ai Weiwei’s art. The mythical renditions fit in seamlessly with the biographical. The glorious cover, in warm colors and gold foil, is by far the high point of the illustrations. I would have honestly liked it if the interiors had been in color as well. The black and white linework just doesn’t seem to carry the same weight or depth as the text it’s accompanying.

Overall, this is a great book for anyone who cares about contemporary art or wants to know more about Ai Weiwei and what made him the person that he is today. It’s not the most accessible for anyone unfamiliar with his oeuvre, but it fills in a lot of important points for those getting to know it better.

Zodiac: A Graphic Memoir by Ai Weiwei, with Elettra Stamboulis & Gianluca Costantini was published January 30 2023 by Ten Speed Graphic and is available from all good booksellers, including

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