The art establishment needs to make its support for Ai Weiwei visible

A curator’s signature on an online petition is not enough. The great museums should publicise China’s detainee via their sites

by Philip Bishop, The Guardian

One of the most successful attempts to galvanise public support for the detained Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has been a petition started by the Guggenheim Museum and other art institutions. To date, it has been signed by over 140,000 individuals and organisations. The petition has been so popular, in fact, that the social action website, which hosts it, said its site has been the target of repeated cyber-attacks originating in China and which, the organisation believes, are aimed directly at taking down the Ai Weiwei petition. The attacks have been so disruptive to that they’ve called on the FBI for assistance and a US lawmaker, championing their cause, is calling on Secretary of State Hilary Clinton to tell the Chinese government to stop the attacks.

Ai Weiwei and his associates – Wen Tao, his friend and assistant; Zhang Jingsong, his cousin and driver; Hu Mingfen, his accountant; Liu Zhenggang, a designer — were rounded up by Chinese authorities on 3 April, when police arrested Ai as he was about to board a plane in Beijing. Although there has been chatter in Beijing-controlled media about crimes supposedly committed by Ai, no charges have been brought against the man rated the world’s top artist.

Despite the popularity of the petition and the international furore surrounding it, however, if you visit the websites of virtually any of the petition’s major signatories, you would not know that Ai was incarcerated. Judging from these websites, all is well with the world.

The Guggenheim is currently promoting an exhibition about Kandinsky at the Bauhaus; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is talking up an exhibition about Elizabeth Taylor in Iran; and even the Tate Modern in the UK, which until a few weeks ago hosted Ai’s Sunflower Seed installation, doesn’t disturb its homepage to inform visitors that the artist has been criminally detained, hasn’t been charged with any crime, hasn’t been heard from for over eight weeks. These three institutions are not alone in their homepage silence. Numerous other headlining signatories of the petition also have nothing to say on the matter on their homepages, including: MoMA; Art Institute of Chicago; Hammer Museum; Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art; Brooklyn Museum; Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston; Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Denmark; Montreal Museum of Fine Arts; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Queensland Art Gallery, Australia; Harvard Art Museums; Museum of Arts and Design, New York; and The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

On the other side of the ledger, the US city of Minneapolis deserves credit – as both the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the Walker Art Centre have had some text on their sites about the petition, while the Serpentine Gallery in London also has text about the petition and a photo of Ai. For its part, the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, has a photo of Ai Weiwei at the Tate Modern tossing his sunflower seeds heavenward – and a reference to the petition – as part of a series of images that cycle through in a Flash slideshow.

Finally, a tip of the cap goes to the Taipei Contemporary Art Centre, which has a brave message on its homepage calling on its mainland adversary to release all activists and to protect the creative freedom of artists, a freedom it says is a sign of any country’s mature development. That’s four institutions out of 20 publicly supporting Ai Weiwei on their websites – and not the biggest names in the art gallery and museum world, by any stretch of the imagination. This is surely a golden opportunity that sadly has been missed. Yet, as Hari Kunzru writes of the Montreal Museum (currently hosting a China show), it’s also a golden opportunity that can still be taken.

The Chinese government, having abducted Ai Weiwei, is making a concerted effort to make him invisible, including removing all references to him from public media, including the internet. They can do this in their land. They should not be allowed to do it in any other. Ai Weiwei was committed and creative in his use of the web when he was free to express himself. He would expect no less of us now that his freedom has been taken from him and he is relying on others to fight for his release.

China: Detains Ai Weiwei as Warning Against Dissent, Says Amnesty International
Amnesty International: URGENT ACTION: Risk of Torture/Fear for Safety notice


To the Honorable Minister Mr. Cai Wu
Ministry of Culture of the People’s Republic of China


Our museums are members of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) and the International Committee of ICOM for Museums and Collections of Modern Art (CIMAM), a non-governmental organization with formal relations with UNESCO. On April 6, CIMAM sent a communiqué calling for the release of Ai Weiwei. Our museums, foundations, and communities of Facebook followers and Twitter fans support CIMAM’s statement:

“The detention of artists and activists is not only inconsistent with China’s commitment to the fundamental freedoms guaranteed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in China’s own constitution, it is also inconsistent with the Chinese government’s pledge, through the Ministry of Culture, to promote all artistic disciplines and to advance artistic ideas. As organisations that represent modern and contemporary art around the world, such actions and the obscurity surrounding them are diametrically opposed to our values. They are of grave concern and consequence for the well-being of Ai Weiwei and for the artistic community at large, and hinder future collaboration with the Chinese colleagues we welcomed at our recent annual meeting in Shanghai.”


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Ministry of Culture of the People’s Republic of China (Minister Mr. Cai Wu)


Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation


On April 3, internationally acclaimed Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was detained at the Beijing airport while en route to Hong Kong, and his papers and computers were seized from his studio compound.

We members of the international arts community express our concern for Ai’s freedom and disappointment in China’s reluctance to live up to its promise to nurture creativity and independent thought, the keys to “soft power” and cultural influence.

Our institutions have some of the largest online museum communities in the world. We have launched this online petition to our collective millions of Facebook fans and Twitter followers.  By using Ai Weiwei’s favored medium of “social sculpture,” we hope to hasten the release of our visionary friend.

Richard Armstrong, Director, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation and Alexandra Munroe, Samsung Senior Curator, Asian Art
Michael Govan, Director, Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Kaywin Feldman, President, Association of Art Museum Directors and Director and President, Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Glenn Lowry, Director, The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Yongwoo Lee, President, The Gwangju Biennale Foundation
Vishakha Desai, President and Melissa Chiu, Vice President of Global Arts, Asia Society
Sir Nicholas Serota, Director, Tate and Chris Dercon, Director, Tate Modern
Jim Cuno, President and Director of the Art Institute of Chicago
Ann Philbin, Director of the Hammer Museum
Julián Zugazagoitia, Director of the Nelson Atkins Museum



Richard Armstrong  古根汉姆美术馆 馆长
Alexandra Munroe   古根汉姆美术馆 资深策展人
Michael Govan 洛杉矶美术馆 馆长
Kaywin Feldman 美国博物馆协会暨明尼阿波利斯美术馆 总裁
Glenn Lowry 纽约当代美术馆 馆长
Yongwoo Lee 光州双年展基金会 总裁
Vishakha Desai 亚洲协会  总裁
Melissa Chiu 亚洲协会 全球艺术项目 副总裁
Sir Nicholas Serota 泰德美术馆  馆长
Jim Cuno, 芝加哥美术馆 馆长暨总裁
Ann Philbin, 汉默美术馆
Julián Zugazagoitia 纳尔逊·阿特金斯艺术博物馆Sir Nicholas Serota 泰德美术馆  馆长



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Museums Press for the Release of Ai Weiwei

By Carol Vogel, New York Times

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation is leading an international effort to call for the release of Ai Weiwei, the Chinese Conceptual artist who was taken into police custody in Beijing after he was detained on Sunday while trying to board a flight for Hong Kong.

It has gathered the support of the museum community, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Tate in London along with the American Association of Art Museum Directors.

“By using Ai Wei Wei’s favored medium of ’social sculpture,’ we hope to hasten the release of our visionary friend and artist,’’ the Guggenheim Foundation said in a statement on its Web site. The foundation and the museums said in a letter posted with the petition on Facebook and Twitter on Friday addressed to the Minister of Culture of the People’s Republic of China, Cai Wu: “We members of the international arts community express our concern for Ai’s freedom and disappointment in China’s reluctance to live up to its promise to nurture creativity and independent thought, the keys to ‘soft power’ and cultural influence.’’

An artistic adviser for the Olympic National Stadium in Beijing, Mr. Ai has clashed with the Chinese government before. After using his work to raise questions about how officials dealt with the May 2008 Sichuan earthquake, in which thousands of schoolchildren were killed in their classrooms, he was beaten by the police in 2009 before he was scheduled to testify at the trial of Tan Zuoren, a writer and activist who was investigating the same issue.

Meanwhile plans are still proceeding to install a 12-piece sculpture, “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads,’’ in Manhattan. Inspired by the fabled fountain-clock of the Yuanming Yuan, an 18th-century imperial retreat just outside Beijing, the work is scheduled to be displayed from May 2 and through July 15 at 59th Street and Fifth Avenue.

China Takes Dissident Artist Into Custody

by Andrew Jacobs, New York Times

BEIJING — The Chinese authorities on Sunday detained Ai Weiwei, a high-profile artist and stubborn government critic, as he tried to board a plane for Hong Kong, his friends and associates said. Mr. Ai’s wife, his nephew and a number of his employees were also taken into custody during a raid on his studio on the outskirts of the capital.

Rights advocates say the detentions are an ominous sign that the Communist Party’s six-week crackdown on rights lawyers, bloggers and dissidents is spreading to the upper reaches of Chinese society. Mr. Ai, 53, the son of one of the country’s most beloved poets, is an internationally renowned artist, a documentary filmmaker and an architect who helped design the Olympic stadium in Beijing known as the Bird’s Nest.

Jennifer Ng, an assistant who accompanied Mr. Ai on Sunday morning, said he was taken away by uniformed officers as the two of them passed through customs at Beijing International Airport. Ms. Ng said she was told to board the plane alone because Mr. Ai “had other business” to attend to. She said Mr. Ai was planning to spend a day in Hong Kong before flying to Taiwan for a meeting about a possible exhibition.

A man who answered the phone at the Beijing Public Security Bureau on Sunday declined to answer questions about Mr. Ai’s whereabouts and hung up.

A police officer, right, and a security guard outside the entrance to Ai Weiwei's studio in Beijing on Sunday.

Shortly after Mr. Ai was seized, more than a dozen police officers raided the artist’s studio in the Caochangdi neighborhood, cut off power to part of that area and led away nearly a dozen employees, a mix of Chinese citizens and foreigners who are part of Mr. Ai’s large staff. By Sunday evening, the foreigners and several of the Chinese had been released after being questioned, according to one of Mr. Ai’s employees, who was not in the studio when the public security agents arrived.

“It’s not clear what they are looking for, but we’re all really terrified,” said the employee, who asked not to be named for fear of drawing the attention of the police. She said the police had visited the studio three times last week to check on the documents of non-Chinese employees.

By singling out Mr. Ai, the authorities are expanding a campaign against dissent that has roiled China’s embattled community of liberal and reform-minded intellectuals. In recent weeks dozens of people have been detained, including some of the country’s best-known writers and rights advocates. At least 11 of them have simply vanished into police custody. Two weeks ago, Liu Xianbin, a veteran dissident in Sichuan Province, was sentenced to 10 years on subversion charges.

Last week Yang Hengjun, a Chinese-Australian novelist and democracy advocate whose blog postings are avidly followed on the mainland, disappeared in southern China as he tried to leave the country. Mr. Yang reappeared four days later, claiming he had been ill, but many friends interpreted his cryptic explanation as a roundabout acknowledgment that he had been detained by the police.

Mr. Ai has run afoul of the authorities before. In 2009, he said he was beaten by officers who crashed though the door of his hotel room in the middle of the night while he was preparing to testify at the trial of a fellow dissident in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan. A month later, while attending an art exhibition in Munich, he was rushed to a hospital, where surgeons drained a pool of blood from his brain. Doctors said he would have died without the emergency surgery.

Last November he was briefly confined to his home in Beijing by police officers, who he said were instructed to prevent him from attending a party in Shanghai he had organized to commemorate the destruction of a million-dollar art studio that had been built at the behest of the local government. Although he never found out who ordered the demolition, he said he suspected powerful figures in Shanghai who were most likely angered by his freewheeling criticism of the government.

Until now, Mr. Ai’s stature has given him wide latitude in leveling public critiques against corruption and the strictures of Communist Party rule. Last year he created an Internet audio project in which volunteers read the names of nearly 5,000 children who were killed during the earthquake in Sichuan Province in 2008. The project and a haunting art installation in Germany composed of thousands of children’s backpacks were aimed at drawing attention to substandard construction that some experts say led to the collapse of many schools.

The most recent wave of detentions was set off in February by an anonymous bulletin that originated on an American Web site, urging Chinese citizens to publicly demand political change. The protest calls, inspired by the unrest in the Arab world, were effectively quashed by the authorities, who detained or questioned dozens of prominent reformers, lawyers as well as unknown bloggers who simply forwarded news of the protests via Twitter. At the time, Mr. Ai sent out a message that sought to dissuade people from taking to the streets.

Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher at Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong, described the continuing crackdown as an attempt by the country’s public security apparatus to roll back the modest civil society advances that have taken root in recent years. “It’s an attempt to redefine the limits of what kind of criticism is tolerable,” he said. “The government is moving the goalposts and a lot of people are finding themselves targeted.”

After his beating at the hands of the police in 2009, Mr. Ai said he had no illusions about the consequences for those who refused to toe the line set down by the country’s leaders.

“They put you under house arrest, or they make you disappear,” he said in an interview. “That’s all they can do. There’s no facing the issue and discussing it; it’s all a very simple treatment. Every dirty job has to be done by the police. Then you become a police state, because they have to deal with every problem.”


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