Rant 59: Notes on Ai Weiwei’s disappearance

Rant 59: Notes on Ai Weiwei’s disappearance Robert Dawson, Spin (detail), 2010. Print on bone china. Each china plate 27 cm diameter

On 3 April 2011 Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was detained at Bejing airport and at the time of writing (18 April 2011) his whereabouts remain unknown. In light of his arrest Becky Hunter questions how cultural institutions are calling for his release, whilst European institutions are simultaneously embracing cultural partnerships with China.

A year ago, I ranted about controversial Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s celebrity status in our Western leisure economy.

I was concerned that even the most hard-core activist art could be so easily translated into ‘gallery-tourist spectacle’ and, in the words of Adrian Searle, ‘fun’

Now that the Chinese government has detained Ai at an unknown location, (albeit for 'economic crimes' rather than for his dissident stance), the artist’s politics are firmly in the spotlight. 

The Guardian casts Ai as a ‘moral and political hero’ in the mould of Gustave Courbet, and uses his arrest as a cue to comment in detail on China’s dictatorial legal system. 

The Economist discusses the case in terms of Chinese media censorship, as does The New Yorker.

British galleries associated with the artist-activist denounced his arrest. 

The Lisson called upon Ai’s ‘great courage in placing himself at risk to affect social change’, while Somerset House and Tate focused their criticism of China’s actions on the primacy of the ‘right to speak freely.’ 

Chinese law, extreme censorship and cultural politics were (I think, rightly) under attack after the announcement of Ai’s disappearance on 5th April.

Yet, only one day previously András Szántó reported in The Art Newspaper on a big-budget partnership between Chinese and European cultural institutions

Szántó’s article describes the design of Beijing’s remodeled National Museum on Tiananmen Square as a carefully constructed ‘cultural handshake’ between its German and Chinese architects – to be followed up by high profile collaborations with Western museums including the Victoria & Albert. 

In the light of Ai Weiwei’s disappearance – and that of many other activists - such East-West conciliatory gestures appear fraught and hypocritical.

Real human rights violations must be confronted consistently, rather than letting the ‘soft power’ of cultural exchange mask continuing coercive behaviour. 

Contributed by Becky Hunter

Becky is an art historian (in training) and a freelance writer on contemporary art. She has a passion for grids and Zizek and hopes one day to open a contemporary project space and to facilitate exciting interdisciplinary collaborations.


The views expressed in The Rant are those of Becky Hunter and forum contributors and unless specifically stated are not those of Axisweb. See our terms and conditions


Next Rant