Ai's show "Evidence" draws on his troubles with Chinese authorities and fills a floor of Berlin's Martin-Gropius-Bau museum. Organizers bill the exhibition opening Wednesday as his biggest yet.
The works also reflect the tension between tradition and modernization in China.
Visitors are greeted by an atrium filled with more than 6,000 antique stools. In an adjoining room, they can see a replica of a prison cell where he was held for 81 days in 2011.
Ai, who's barred from leaving China, said in a video message: "I still hope I can come to see the show and share the moment."