Friday, 14 October 2011

Still in the Lead

Portrait of Ai Weiwei by Hong Kong photographer Almond Chu
Who is the most powerful person in the world of art today?

According to London-based ArtReview's 10th annual "Power 100", it's artist and activist Ai Weiwei.

It said: "Ai's power and influence derive from the fact that his work and his words have become catalysts for international political debates. 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."

It's a sure sign that the media and art world were becoming more aware of what is going on in China.

"My art is about communication and about consciousness," he said. "My so-called activism is part of my art and I cannot really separate them because my purpose is to protect the very essential right [to] freedom of expression."

Ai also made it on Time magazine's list of 100 most influential people this year.

While he says his political activism is "quite dangerous", the 54-year-old vowed he would not back down. "How can I give up? That is the value of life and the value of being an artist. It's not a matter of choice.

"Today is a time of change not just in China but also in the world -- Arab, Asia, Africa... so artists always have to play an important role in this kind of change."

His troubles with the authorities culminated into being taken into custody in April and then later charged with "economic crimes". He wasn't released until June.

During the time he was detained, his family had no idea of his whereabouts and whether he was alright, as he has diabetes and high blood pressure. He was physically roughed up and also constantly watched my security only a few feet away from him at all times.

He says his experiences were not uncommon, making people outside of China become more aware of what is going on in the country in terms of human rights.

"I can use myself as an example for people to understand that... China is not just some nation which is getting rich, but there is a price to pay for not having these essential rights."

Since his release in June, Ai is still watched by the authorities and is careful about what he says. He is not supposed to officially give interviews not talk about his experiences being held in communicado.

Last month he told an Austrian radio station that he feared for his safety. "I may lose my life... they [the government] can make me disappear," he said.

Nevertheless, the government had little to say about the art world's high praise of Ai. Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said the honouring of the artist was politically motivated. "To make judgement from a political perspective and political prejudice is against the purpose and principle of the magazine," he said.

It was a weak attempt to spin the story. The more the government refuses to acknowledge Ai as one of its biggest sources of soft power, the more he is celebrated abroad.

Who's winning the public opinion battle?


  1. When we were in Hong Kong in April, I was surprised to see my hotel TV go black while watching CNN as CNN began to discuss Ai's then-disappearance. When it happened a few days later in Beijing right after CNN broadcast of the official China news agency's interpretation of events, I was expecting the censorship. Wow.

  2. i like his portrait- ai weiwei's piercing eyes speak it all. a very determined , upright, straight forward man full of inner unspeakable strength. that is why the chinese government is afraid to jail him despite his being so outspoken. for that would certainly cause an international condemnation and uproar. a fearless brave heart. china needs more of these good citizens to survive in the ocean of corruption, backward thinking and moral decay.

  3. I saw Ai Weiwei in a Beijing restaurant once. And yes he has these eyes that have no fear in staring anyone down.