"I Don't Feel Powerful At All": Ai Weiwei Ranked Most Powerful Figure in Art World

ArtReview magazine has ranked Ai Weiwei number one in its tenth annual list of “the dancers who’ve spent the past 12 months gyrating around contemporary art’s greasy pole of power”. Ai is only the second artist to top the list, which also includes collectors, curators and critics. From The Associated Press:

The honor is the latest sign of how Ai’s fame has soared following his arrest at Beijing airport in April and subsequent 81 days in detention amid a crackdown on dissidents, lawyers, and government critics. Although freed, he remains under investigation for economic crimes and has been warned not to make public statements ….

Asked for comment, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said it would be inappropriate to consider politics in making the selection.

“I think there are many artists in China who are competent to be candidates for the magazine. If this was done with political prejudice, it would be a violation of the purpose and principles of the magazine,” Liu said.

The magazine itself disagrees, saying in its announcement of the results that Ai won “as a result of his activism as much as his art practice”. From his entry on the list itself:

… 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.

Most important of all, Ai’s activities have allowed artists to move away from the idea that they work within a privileged zone limited by the walls of a gallery or museum. They have reminded his colleagues and the world at large of the fact that freedom of expression is a basic right of any human being. In the process, Ai has promoted the notion that art’s real context is not simply ‘the market’ or ‘the institution’, but what’s happening now, around us, in the real world.

But ArtReview’s editor denied that Ai’s selection was purely political. From Reuters:

“Of course it’s something about political activism that runs through the list this year,” he told Reuters.

“But I think it’s more about expanding the concept of art that’s not really solely contained in the privileged space of museums and galleries. It’s about how it engages with the world.

“It’s expanding the possibilities of what you can do with art and as an artist how you can use your voice.”

Ai Weiwei himself argued that it was impossible to separate his art from his circumstances and, while pleased by the accolade, told the BBC that “I don’t feel powerful at all”:

“I don’t have this concept to separate my art from my daily life. I think they are one thing to me. They are always one.

“How do you find a way to express yourself and how to communicate with others? Art is how we put our lives to deal with our living conditions.”

(Click through for audio.)

Also on the list are Asia Art Archive co-founders Chang Tsong-zung & Claire Hsu (=70th) and collector Richard Chang (73rd).

Although Ai is forbidden to travel, Internet access extends his reach beyond Beijing. The New York Times describes a recent online collaboration between Ai and photographer Max Vadukul in New York:

In an unusual collaboration with W magazine, Mr. Ai created a story line for a series of photos that were shot on location in New York by the photographer Max Vadukul as Mr. Ai looked on, art directing via Skype on a laptop computer. The photos will appear in the November issue, W’s sixth annual one devoted to art. They depict a woman, dressed in the requisite designer outfit, being captured, handcuffed and hooded on the street by two menacing figures and taken to a grim institution — a disused part of Rikers — where they watch her shower.

The scenes are reminiscent of photos Mr. Ai took of the Tompkins Square riots in the 1980s, when he lived in New York, which he used as inspiration for the project. They also unavoidably refer to his own confinement, which China’s government has forbidden him from discussing.

“It’s a very astute way of communicating with the world outside of China,” said Melissa Chiu, director of Asia Society Museum, which organized an exhibition of Mr. Ai’s New York-era photos this summer. “I think that what it does is signal that he is prepared to continue his art practice and continue his statements that really can be related to his political activism.”

Sources:

Magazine names Ai Weiwei most powerful artist – Associated Press
2011 Power 100 – ArtReview
1. Ai Weiwei – The ArtReview Power 100 – ArtReview
China’s Ai Weiwei tops annual ArtReview power list – Reuters
Ai Weiwei ‘does not feel powerful’ – BBC News
Dissident Creates by Remote Control – NYTimes.com