Ai Weiwei Blasts Out of Isolation as Hero of Glossy Western Magazines, to China's Chagrin

Ai Weiwei Blasts Out of Isolation as Hero of Glossy Western Magazines, to China's Chagrin
Artist Ai Weiwei
(AFP/Getty Images)

By now, the Chinese government must be beginning to realize that it is pretty hard to keep dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei quiet. After international political and cultural pressure forced the government to free the artist from an arrest and detainment over trumped-up tax charges, Ai returned to the world of social media (despite having promised that he would abandon his cyber-agitation). He has, however, kept relatively quiet in the art world — until now.

Ai has created an original work that graces the cover of W's November art issue — a spot filled in the past by artists like Richard Prince and MaurizioCattelan — and continues over four pages inside the magazine. The NewYork Times reports that W senior editor Diane Solway reached out to the artist not long after his detention ended in June to arrange the collaboration, giving the artist free reign over the project. He chose to create a series of photos inspired by his own documentary photography of life in New York City in the '80s, which included shots of the Tompkins Square riots.  


The resulting cover pic is a not-so-subtly-political image of a model-rioter dressed in a gaudy yellow jacket being dragged away by two plainclothes policemen. The cover is emblazoned with the words "Enforced Disappearance," seemingly a reference to the artist's secretive arrest and detainment.  


Still unable to leave China, Ai Weiwei directed the Riker's Island photo shoot with the help of Skype and a laptop, working with photographer Max Vadukul to execute his vision. Ai wasn't paid for his work with the magazine, Solway noted, but the artist appeared "in fine spirits" throughout the shoot, despite the threat of surveillance and political pressure from the Chinese government to remain silent.

Coincidentally, Ai has also found himself honored by ArtReview's Power 100 list: the artist took the top spot away from Larry Gagosian, who came in fourth this year. "Ai's power and influence derive from the fact that his work and his words have become catalysts for international political debates that affect every nation on the planet: freedom of expression, nationalism, economic power, the Internet, the rights of the human being," ArtReview writes. Ai is one of the only Asian artists to make the list.

The ArtReview designation provoked an immediate negative reaction from the Chinese government, reports the Wall Street Journal. Foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin "dismissed ArtReview's selection of Mr. Ai for the top spot in its annual Power 100 list as being tainted by 'political bias.'"  "China has a lot of famous artists who are strong enough to qualify for selection by this magazine," Liu is quoted as saying. "We feel that making this selection purely from a position of political bias violates the magazine's objective."

Concurrently, Ai has also been included in the Atlantic's 2011 "Brave Thinkers" report. He was also recently featured in Time's list of the world's 100 Most Influential People. It seems that Ai Weiwei is the artist people love to list.

Few Chinese artists can rival Ai for international influence. Artists like Xu Bing, Zhang Xiaogang, and Zeng Fanzhi may command similar auction prices, but they all lack Ai's global visibility. Still, to place the artist in a continuum with Larry Gagosian for the metric of art-world "power" seems a little strange, given his consistently anti-authoritarian agitation. And, despite his work with W, Ai is personally powerless — he remains unable to leave China, or speak or make art freely.