Ai Weiwei Reaches New York — Via Skype

October 13, 2011

Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei is well-known for integrating technology into his daily life and art.  And once again, Ai’s digital prowess has allowed him to circumvent attempts by the Chinese government to suppress him.

Since his release from almost four months of detention in June, the prolific, globe-trotting artist has mainly been confined to his studio in Beijing, under strict surveillance by the authorities.  But a Skype phone call with editors of W Magazine led to an unusual collaboration for the magazine’s annual art issue: Ai directing a series of photos shot in New York  — over Skype.

Since August, Ai has been working with W‘s senior editor Diane Solway to design the spread. Looking at each detail from his computer screen, he directed photographer Max Vadukul during the shoot.  The setup was not just a clever way to work around his travel ban; the storyline that Ai devised also “unavoidably refers to his own confinement,” which is he is banned from discussing.

The photos depict a woman clad in a high-fashion Alexander Wang designer outfit who is handcuffed, hooded and abducted off a street, and then taken to a gloomy institution where her captors watch her shower.  With the notable exception of the designer clothing, the scenes are reminiscent of the Tomkins Square riots Ai photographed in the 1980s, a class struggle that ended in a heavy crackdown by the police.

“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,” Melissa Chiu, director of Asia Society Museum, told the The New York Times.

Ai’s celebrity has only increased since his arrest.  This week, the influential British magazine Art Review named him 2011’s most powerful artist.  Even though W Magazine’s audience is largely in the West, some worry about Ai facing repercussions from the authorities, who can be arbitrary in choosing what to punish.

“It’s hard to know when the hammer will come down,” said Sophie Richardson, the China director of Human Rights Watch.

Bonus: Ai Weiwei’s Art: Sample a slideshow of Ai’s architecture, installations and objects.

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