Artist of the year: Ai Weiwei

The arrest and detention of the Chinese artist earlier this year brought him even more fame and attention.

“Nothing has shaken up the art world this year like the arrest and nearly three-month detention of Ai Weiwei,” said Kelly Crow in The Wall Street Journal. The Chinese government’s decision to temporarily disappear the 53-year-old conceptual artist in April backfired by bringing more fame to an innovator who has consistently used his global platform to call attention to social injustice and political repression in his native land. Ai first came to prominence when he consulted on the design of Beijing’s Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium. This year, as he has bravely resisted the state’s efforts to silence him, his art is being given a closer look, and people are discovering how “remarkably different” it is from anything produced by his peers. Take his “seminal” series of 1995 photographs that show him staring straight at the camera as he drops and shatters a Han Dynasty urn. He’s critiquing destruction even as he destroys.

Ai opened 2011 riding the acclaim from one of his most striking works yet, said Adrian Searle in the London Guardian. He’d filled a vast hall at London’s Tate Modern with sunflower seeds—100 million of them, each one made of ceramic and hand-painted. Until the museum restricted access to the hall because of health concerns related to dust, you could “scoop up handfuls and let them run through your fingers in the knowledge that someone, an old lady or a small-town teenager in Jingdezhen, had delicately picked up each one and anointed it with a small brush.” The same city that once made porcelain for the imperial court was “saved from bankruptcy” by Ai’s decision to hire its craftspeople for a conceptual art project. That Ai seems to understand the absurdity of the situation is part of what makes him the best artist to emerge in China since the end of the Cultural Revolution.

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