"Ai Weiwei: According to What?" at the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., is the first major exhibition in North America of works by one of the foremost figures to emerge from China's contemporary art scene. The full-floor exhibition includes sculpture, photography, installation and multimedia, and features many works never before shown.
From left to right: "Coca-Cola Vase," 2007; "New York Photographs," 1983-93; and "Moon Chest," 2008.
Chinese Artist Ai Weiwei poses in front of his sculpture "Template" in Kassel, Germany, June 13, 2007.
"Snake Ceiling," 2009, by Ai Weiwei, part of the installation "Ai Weiwei: According to What?" at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C., 2012.
Ai Weiwei learned to challenge authority early on. His father, a famous revolutionary poet, fell out of favor with the Chinese Communist government. and like many intellectuals was sent (along with his whole family) to the provinces to be "reeducated."
"My father and I all paid disastrous costs to the freedom of speech," Ai said. "So does the country."
But Ai Wei Wei's artistic development really began when he came to the U.S. in 1983 on a fellowship, and stayed 10 years.
"It was the people he met in New York City -- the Allen Ginsburgs, the Robert Rauchenbergs -- that opened his mind," said Kerry Brougher, chief curator of the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington.
He returned to China, where his work in everything from sculpture to architecture was so well-respected that he was chosen to help design the signature "Bird's Nest Stadium" for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
But Ai Wei Wei ended up disowning his own work, because he felt the government was using the stadium in the wrong way.
"It was not the symbol of civil and sports spirits, but nationalism and authoritarianism instead," Ai said.
"For years he'd been smarting," said New York University Law School Professor Jerome Cohen, "and finally it came to a boiling point over the Olympics, the hypocrisy that he saw, the effort to sell the world on the China that doesn't really exist."
Cohen says that what really enraged the Chinese government was that, after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake that killed at least 68,000 people, Ai Wei Wei began investigating shoddy construction that led to countless collapsed buildings. As shown in the documentary, "Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry,
"I think that embedded in the works, whether they are political or not, are his ideas and his desire to see the world change," said Kerry Brougher, chief curator of the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington.
From left to right: "Beijing's 2008 Olympic Stadium," 2005-08; "Divina Proportione," 2006; and "F-Size," 2011. Installation view of "Ai Weiwei: According to What?" at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C., 2012.
Ai Weiwei told CBS News' Beijing bureau that he was not allowed to travel to the U.S. for his show. "I am very used to this kind of situation," he said, "where the authorities do what they want without any legitimate reasons. It is already a crime to ask for explanations."
But he sent works that speak for him: A serpent constructed from small backpacks like those carried by children who died when their poorly-built schools collapsed during the quake; and a new sculpture, composed of 38 metric tons of rods formed from the shoddy iron that was SUPPOSED to help hold up buildings.
From left to right: "Grapes," 2010; "New York Photographs," 1983-1993; and "Tea House," 2009. Installation view of "Ai Weiwei: According to What?" at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C., 2012.
"He Xie" (2010- ), by Ai Weiwei.
Detail view of Ai Weiwei's "He Xie" (2010- ), from the collection of the artist.
In this triptych of photographs, "Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn," Ai Wei Wei actually drops a 2,000-year-old Han Dynasty vase.
"He is trying to shock you, he's trying to shake you up," said Brougher. "By destroying objects, it brings attention to the destruction that's happening in society. It's almost like fighting fire with fire."
"Colored Vases," 2007-2010, by Ai Weiwei.
"Table with Two Legs on the Wall," 2008 by Ai Weiwei, from the collection of Larry Warsh.
Ai Weiwei reaching for the "Dog Zodiac Head," at the bronze foundry in Chengdu, China, April 2010.
"Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads," 2010, by Ai Weiwei, Installation view at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
Ai Weiwei's "Map of China," 2008. Collection of the Faurschou Foundation.
Hirshhorn curator Kerry Brougher says that you don't have to know the specific political motivations behind works like "Cube Light," to appreciate the creative genius of Ai Weiwei:
"His works are filled with questions," he said. "And I think that's what a great artwork does: It raises questions. It doesn't necessarily answer them for you. It makes you, as the viewer, have to think about things."
"Straight," 2008-12, by Ai Weiwei. Collection of the artist.
For mor einfo: "Ai Weiwei: According to What" at the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, D.C. (Exhibition through Feb. 24)
By CBSNews.com senior editor David Morgan