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ArtReview Names China's Ai Weiwei Most Powerful Person In The Art World

<p>Outspoken Chinese artist Ai Weiwei arrives to speak to reporters outside his studio in Beijing in June of 2011.</p>
Peter Parks
AFP/Getty Images

Outspoken Chinese artist Ai Weiwei arrives to speak to reporters outside his studio in Beijing in June of 2011.

The magazine ArtReview has named the dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei "the contemporary art world's most powerful player" in 2011.

The magazine said Ai is only the second artist to top the list. The English artist Damien Hirst topped the list in 2005 and 2008. As we've reported, Ai has made huge waves over the past year, especially after he was detained by China for 81 days. The Chinese said they held him over "economic crimes," but China has come after Ai before because he's been openly critical of the government. While he was detained, fans staged worldwide demonstrations in front of Chinese embassies.

The magazine saidhe takes the top spot on the list for just those reasons:

... 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.

As expected, China was not happy with the distinction.

"China has many artists who have sufficient ability. We feel that a selection that is based purely on a political bias and perspective has violated the objectives of the magazine," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said in a briefing, according to Reuters.

In an interview with the BBC, Ai said he did not "feel powerful at all." He said the distinction doesn't change the fact that he's still under a kind of "detention." Even the interview with the BBC, he said, could bring him problems with the Chinese government.

He said instead of powerful, he felt "fragile."

"Maybe being powerful is being fragile," he said.

Ai is best know for his spectacular conceptual art, including China's Bird Nest stadium. If you want to get a feel for his struggles with China's regime, we recommend you read a deeply personal piece he wrote forNewsweek back in August.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.