Despite the Chinese government’s continued demands for his silence, Ai Weiwei is letting his art do the talking on the November cover of W, the magazine’s sixth annual art issue. Detained for 81 days by the Chinese government earlier this year, Ai was released on June 22 on the condition that he no longer offer public comment. Though Ai has largely failed to comply with this gag order, speaking out through Twitter in August against the treatment of detained colleagues and revealing the disturbing details of his imprisonment, the set of five photos commissioned by W marks the artist’s first major new work following his nearly three-month detention.
Currently under house arrest in his Beijing studio, Ai directed the New York photo shoot, led by photographer Max Vadukul, via Skype. The photo series, titled “Enforced Disappearance,” was directly influenced not only by the artist’s recent confinement, but by his 1980s photos of the Tomkins Square Riots. After being approached by W, which has previously worked with Maurizio Cattelan and Richard Prince, Ai explained his vision for the work and cited the Tomkins Square photos to illustrate the mood he hoped to capture on the magazine’s cover.
The first of the five images features Chinese model Sui He, clad in a bright yellow Alexander Wang jacket, being dragged down the streets of Flushing’s Chinatown by two ominous figures. In subsequent photos, she is handcuffed, hooded and taken to Riker’s Island, where her captors watch her shower. Despite the high-fashion gloss lent to the images by Vadukul, best known for his Rolling Stone covers, they effectively serve as a chilling critique of government-sponsored abductions, arrests and imprisonments without due process of law.
It is high profile and confrontational work like this that has led to Ai topping ArtReview‘s recently released Power 100 list of art world figures. The magazine said that “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.”
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin reported to Reuters that “a selection that is based purely on a political bias and perspective has violated the objectives of the magazine,” but ArtReview‘s editor, Mark Rappolt, disagreed. “Of course it’s something about political activism that runs through the list this year, but I think it’s more about expanding the concept of art that’s not solely contained in the privileged space of museums and galleries. . . . It’s expanding the possibilities of what you can do with art and how, as an artist, you can use your voice.”
Ai has largely declined to speak with the press about this latest honor, telling the BBC that he is being “strongly restricted” and that “this kind of conversation today I am doing is a violation. I think it may bring me very big trouble.” His high-profile activism on behalf of personal expression and his loudly denounced incarceration may allow Ai to wield significant cultural and political influence in the world at large, but the artist lacks the basic freedoms that most Americans take for granted. Ai’s safety in China is still very much in jeopardy—it is little wonder that the artist does “not feel powerful at all.”