Artist Ai Weiwei may be languishing in a Chinese jail, but his work is continuing to speak volumes, not least in Switzerland.
Two exhibitions involving the artist’s work open this month in Lucerne and Winterthur. Ai was due to take part in both, but that changed when he was arrested in Beijing in April for “suspected economic crimes”.
He has not been seen since, with Chinese state security believed to be holding him. The government has refused to answer questions about his fate, saying only that the case “remains under investigation”.
Internationally the art world continues to raise awareness of his plight. “Release Ai Weiwei” reads a message inscribed on the top of Britain’s Tate Modern. In Paris, British sculptor Anish Kapoor dedicated his latest work “Leviathan” to Ai. In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg paid tribute to him at the Pulitzer Foundation.
Even in Hong Kong, Ai-shaped stencils have been sprayed around the city.
In Winterthur, the Photography Museum will be presenting the world’s first comprehensive collection of Ai’s photographic and video works in a show called “Interlacing”.
Ai’s subjects range from the victims hurt by fallen buildings in the Sichuan quake zone to shots of the authorities’ destruction of his own studio in Shanghai. More than 100,000 photos alone peppered his 2005-2009 blog in China.
Curator Urs Stahel told swissinfo.ch the show had attracted widespread publicity even before the opening, a first for his museum. “This exhibition anyway was a kind of political exhibition. And after his arrest I think the importance of the exhibition has grown quite dramatically. It’s quite overwhelming to see how his arrest is being discussed.”
Stahel has worked with Ai for the past year on the exhibition and in compiling a 500-page book on his work, but since his arrest Stahel has had to complete the project on his own, fully aware meanwhile of its growing significance.
“This show is his voice. This book is his voice. And that’s exactly what the Chinese government wants to silence,” he said.
Over in Lucerne, Ai is listed as one of three co-curators of the “Shanshui” (meaning landscape) collection of Chinese contemporary artists, which includes many works supplied by former Swiss ambassador Uli Sigg, the world’s leading collector of modern art from China.
Instead of holding the billed master talk by Ai and Sigg, the museum has joined forces with others in the art community to hold a public forum on Ai’s situation, debating the role of artists as “politically active subjects” and what effect Ai’s case has had on the Swiss cultural establishment and Sino-Swiss relations in general.
Among the speakers will be Nicole Pfister Fetz, a committee member of the Art and Politics network of Swiss artists. The group has publicly criticised the Swiss arts council Pro Helvetia for not postponing cultural cooperation with China as long as artistic freedom is limited there.
“We are questioning the status of Switzerland in all this,” she told swissinfo.ch. “For us there’s a great lack of critical discussion about cultural exchanges with countries where artists cannot work freely. Now we have a chance to start a discussion and that’s the most important thing we are calling for.”
The role of artists is to look at societal issues in a different and freer way, she adds.
Stahel will also be taking part. “For me it is also important that we look not only at Ai Weiwei in China. Every country in the world needs an Ai Weiwei, this kind of figure who looks at what’s not working in Switzerland, what’s going wrong in France, in Germany,” he said.
“The hope is that in the future, everywhere in the world, we will also have strong personalities who play the role Ai Weiwei is playing in China right now.”
Mentor or Swiss brand?
Speaking to Swiss television just days before his arrest, Ai said: “I heard they say I’m too influential. I don’t know that that means, whether that’s a good reason to lock me up.”
Lucerne Museum of Art says Ai the “conceptual artist, architect and activist” has “long been a key figure and mentor of the Chinese art scene”.
Switzerland has played a role in raising his international status. Lucerne’s Galerie Urs Meile fostered his career from 1997 onwards and his first solo show was held in Bern. Significantly, Uli Sigg has been a close friend and promoter of his work.
Ai could even be called a “Swiss brand”, according to Berlin Chinese contemporary art gallery owner Zhu Ling. Zhu argues that Sigg’s purchases and promotion of his work boosted his profile in a “fairy tale” fashion: projecting him from his first solo show in 2004 to commanding six-figure sums for his works at auction by 2006.
She believes he is not a “real dissident”. Ai uses “blanket statements” about Chinese freedom and democracy in his blogs but doesn’t delve as deeply into Chinese society as other artists and intellectuals might and, of course, he earns a lot of money from his work, she wrote in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on Thursday.
Preparing the final touches to the show in Winterthur, Stahel says their collection of Ai’s work will speak for itself, depicting “a serious, concerned, honest artist with elements of a civil rights campaigner about him”.
Exhibitions in Switzerland
The “Shanshui” exhibition runs from May 21-October 2 at the Lucerne Museum of Art. It includes selected historical Shanshui paintings and examples of major protagonists of Chinese contemporary art. Ai Weiwei is a co-curator and his work is featured.
A public forum on Ai’s detention, with speakers from the Swiss art scene, takes place at the Lucerne Kur pavilion on May 21 at 4pm.
The Winterthur Photography Museum presents “Interlacing”, a solo show of Ai’s photographic works from May 28-August 21.
The museum is holding a forum on the place of art in society on June 10.end of infobox
Ai has mixed an international contemporary art career with campaigns critical of government censorship and political restrictions.
Ai gained international renown when he co-designed the Beijing Olympic stadium with Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron.
Ai has had past clashes with authorities, in particular for supporting victims of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, but his wife has said that the current situation is worse.
Until now, Ai has been somewhat protected by his fame and because he is the son of a famed Communist poet, Ai Qing.
He was arrested at Beijing airport on April 3 boarding a flight to Hong Kong.end of infobox
Swiss government reaction
Swiss Interior Minister Didier Burkhalter raised the issue of Ai's detention during a visit to China in April.
Meeting with State Councillor Liu Yandong, a member of the Politburo of the Communist Party, he said: "This artist is expected in Switzerland at two exhibitions. He has links with our country. We are concerned about his arrest.”
In response to a request from swissinfo.ch on April 7, the Swiss foreign ministry expressed “great concern” over Ai’s arrest and said that it had contacted the Chinese authorities to express hope that the case would be resolved quickly.end of infobox