Dissident Creates by Remote Control
By MELENA RYZIK
Published: October 12, 2011, in NY Times
From his studio in Beijing, Ai Weiwei, the outspoken Chinese artist and dissident, had a clear view of Rikers Island. For months Mr. Ai, who was detained by Chinese authorities in the spring and released under close surveillance in June, has been limited in his travel and communications with the outside world. But recently he was able to escape, at least digitally, and even to make new work in another country.
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.”
Mr. Ai did not respond to a request to answer questions about the work; since August, when he published an essay critical of social conditions in Beijing in Newsweek, he has been under even greater pressure to avoid interviews. But Diane Solway, the W senior editor who helped oversee the project, explained how it came together. The magazine typically makes commissions for its art issues — Richard Prince and the sculptor Maurizio Cattelan have participated in the past — and, at the suggestion of W’s editor, Stefano Tonchi, it approached Mr. Ai to do the cover not long after he was released from detention.
“He really, really liked the idea,” said Ms. Solway, who reached Mr. Ai through connections in the art world. “We left it open to him to create an original work and then we didn’t hear from him for a little bit, so we thought it wasn’t happening.”
Out of the blue, Mr. Ai emerged, with not only a cover idea but also a detailed schema for five photos, using his Tompkins Square images as a reference for the mood he wanted to create. In late August, when the W editors, Mr. Vadukul and Mr. Ai discussed the project over Skype, they realized that he could use the same technology to monitor the proceedings in real time.
“Two days later we were at Rikers, shooting,” Ms. Solway said. Mr. Vadukul would set up a shot and look to Mr. Ai for approval. “We could see him on the screen, scrolling through the images,” Ms. Solway said. “What was so interesting was his attention to every detail. There was this big shower in Rikers — we thought it looked very dingy, but he said the grout was way too clean and graphic.”
During a break, Ms. Solway even took Mr. Ai — or rather, his disembodied self, on the open laptop — on a tour of Rikers. “It was very surreal,” she said.
For Mr. Vadukul, a leading photographer for Rolling Stone, the challenge was in translating Mr. Ai’s aesthetic for W’s fashion readership. (A nude Kim Kardashian was on the cover of the art issue last year; Brad Pitt’s photos of Angelina Jolie appeared in 2008.) Though Mr. Ai specified that he wanted street clothes, in the cover photo, shot in Flushing, Queens, the model is wearing an outfit by Alexander Wang. Mr. Vadukul made some suggestions — like shooting in black and white, which he said Mr. Ai agreed with — but he was mindful that he was there to execute another person’s vision.
“This is his story,” Mr. Vadukul said. “For me, the excitement has been, firstly, to have the chance to collaborate with an artist of his stature, then to hear him actually give a very strong direction.” He added: “If anybody ever asks me what’s the most incredible thing you’ve ever done in editorial, I will say this assignment.”
As for the effect that the photos will have on Mr. Ai’s status in Beijing, Ms. Chiu, of Asia Society, noted that “the audience for W magazine is mainly in the West.” But Sophie Richardson, China director for Human Rights Watch in Washington, cautioned that it was difficult to know how the Chinese government would respond.
“Its conduct is often the very definition of arbitrariness,” she said. (After he was detained Mr. Ai signed a confession of tax evasion — a rare charge in China — which he later described as a means of punishing him for his activism.) Mr. Ai’s popularity in the West — supporters maintain an English-language Twitter account that provides translations of his Chinese posts — and his currency within the art market may unnerve Chinese authorities.
“This is part of what particularly rankles the government about him, is that not only does he have international standing, he has standing in a community that is not very well known to them,” Ms. Richardson said. “It’s hard to know when the hammer will come down.”
Mr. Ai was not paid for his work with W, Ms. Solway said, and betrayed no nervousness about it, though she presumed that he was under surveillance as they worked together. She added that he was in fine spirits throughout the shoot.
“He has a very good sense of humor,” she said. “He said to me, without humor there is no work.”
is an activist artist from Moldova. He has been arrested a number of times by the country's police during his street performances. He has protested, using very creative forms of expression, against the corruption of the police and of the government, the infringement of human rights and of the free speech in Moldova. He is free now. This blog is dedicated to him.