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visual art

Dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei reacts to a question during an interview at his studio in Beijing September 27, 2012.DAVID GRAY/Reuters

China's most famous political dissident, Ai Weiwei, launches his first major U.S. art exhibition on Sunday with some unflinchingly political works, including an image of his brain bleeding from a police beating.

The show, Ai Weiwei: According to What? at Washington's Hirshhorn Museum groups sculpture, photography, video, audio and installation work.

The choice of the Hirshhorn on the National Mall reflects Ai's desire to connect with political leaders, hundreds of foreign diplomats and the network of think tanks in the U.S. capital, museum director Richard Koshalek told reporters.

Ai said in a statement: "This exhibition has been an opportunity to re-examine past work and communicate with audiences from afar. I see it as a stream of activities rather than a fixed entity."

Ai's 81-day detention last year sparked an international outcry. Activists see authorities' tax-evasion case against him as an attempt to muzzle the artist over his criticism of the Chinese government.

The exhibition fills much of the ring-shaped museum with scores of Ai's works. It centers on such themes as the relationship between art, society and individual experience.

The works include dozens of ink jet prints of the construction of Beijing's 2008 Olympic Stadium, which he helped design, and China Log, a 1.6-metre map of China made of ironwood taken from demolished temples.

Much of show is devoted to the deadly 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province and the thousands of schoolchildren who died when shoddily constructed buildings collapsed. Ai was among the dissidents who had challenged Chinese authorities to investigate the deaths.

The ghostlike magnetic resonance image of his bleeding brain, measuring 100 x 200 cm, he attributes to a 2009 police beating.

Snake Ceiling is a 90-metre sculpture of a twisting snake made from student backpacks and mounted on the museum's ceiling.

A wall-sized print shows the names of 5,000 students killed in the quake. They are recited on a three-hour, 41-minute voice recording nearby.

Ai, 55, who is not allowed to leave China, was in frequent contact with organizers about how his works were displayed, curator Mami Kataoka said.

China is piling more pressure on Ai, with the artist saying on Tuesday that authorities have revoked the business license of the company that produces his art.

"Ai Weiwei: According to What?" runs at the Hirshhorn until Feb. 24, 2013. It then travels to the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, Miami's Perez Art Museum and the Brooklyn Museum in New York.