Influential British magazine Art Review has named China's politically outspoken Ai Weiwei as its most powerful artist of 2011.
The honor is the latest sign of how Ai's fame has soared following his arrest at Beijing airport in April and subsequent 81 days in detention amid a crackdown on dissidents, lawyers, and government critics. Although freed, he remains under investigation for economic crimes and has been warned not to make public statements.
In an article accompanying the list published in its November edition, Art Review said Ai's detention and the accompanying international outcry only increased the public's appetite to see his work.
"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," the magazine said.
His activities "have reminded his colleagues and the world at large of the fact that freedom of expression is a basic right of any human being," it said.
Asked for comment, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said it would be inappropriate to consider politics in making the selection.
"I think there are many artists in China who are competent to be candidates for the magazine. If this was done with political prejudice, it would be a violation of the purpose and principles of the magazine," Liu said.
A sculptor, photographer, inveterate blogger, and installation artist, Ai has also tried his hand at architectural design, most famously as part of the creative team that produced Beijing's iconic national stadium, known as the Bird's Nest.
Ai, 54, has largely ignored the gag order placed on him and resumed posting to Twitter, although his comments are fewer and less incendiary than before. His design firm has also challenged a government demand for $1.85 million in back taxes and fines.
In a telephone interview, Ai said he was pleased by the recognition and called it an endorsement of his campaign for freedom of expression.
"It's proof internationally that the art community is really concerned with my art, with my effort," he said. "You can sense the power when people really care, identify with the cause. But as a person, I don't feel powerful."
Although other government critics remain in detention, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, Ai's release was seen as a rare concession both to international pressure and appeals from inside the ruling Communist Party, where Ai's late father, a poet, is widely revered.
Ai said the official hostility toward him was born of an outdated inability to engage in debate with dissenters.
"They still have the old way of thinking and see me as an enemy. They need to have a space for discussion and communication," Ai said.
Ai has also been selected by Time magazine as one of the most influential people of 2011. He has exhibited at the Tate Modern's famed Turbine Room and his Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads exhibit of sculptures is touring worldwide.
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