11 May 2011

Artists condemn Ai Weiwei detention as exhibitions open

Sculptor Antony Gormley tells Channel 4 News the continued detention of renowned Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is a “disaster” for the art world, but insists “state barbarism” will not be silenced.

British sculptor Antony Gormley told Channel 4 News that the incarceration of artist Ai Weiwei, who was arrested by the Chinese authorities last month, had “shocked the world”.

Ai Weiwei, an outspoken critic of the Chinese government, has not been heard of since he was arrested at a Beijing airport on 3 April.

China has said the avant-garde artist is being investigated for un-specified economic crimes. His lawyer and wife have been denied access to see him.

Amid global condemnation for the detention, on Wednesday sculptor Anish Kapoor dedicated his latest work to Ai, while calling on galleries and museums around the world to close for one day in protest.

“I wish to dedicate my new work, Leviathan at the Grand Palais, Paris, to my colleague Ai Weiwei,” he said.

“His arrest, disappearance and alleged torture are unacceptable. When governments silence artists, it bears witness to their barbarity.”

The Paris instillation, standing 37 meters high, will be unveiled on May 11.

Artists condemn Ai Weiwei detention as exhibitions open

Ai Weiwei, 53, is best known in the UK for creating a carpet of hand-carved sunflower seeds in London’s Tate Modern.

Ai Weiwei is amongst the most brave artists alive today. Antony Gormley

Antony Gormley told Channel 4 News that the artist had an “incredible creative mind” and that his inspirational art was crucial as “an instrument of change”.

“Ai Weiwei is amongst the most brave artists alive today,” the sculptor said.

“He’s made it clear that he wants the freedom that he has exercised as an artist to be everyone’s freedom, and he sees art as an instrument for making that happen.

“We have to go on looking, listening and attending to his work so these two shows are critical.”

The outcry over Ai Weiwei’s detention comes as two exhibitions of his work open in London.

Somerset House will display Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads in its courtyard from 12 May, while The Lisson Gallery will exhibit a number of pieces created over the past six years. It opens on 13 May.

“This is a very extraordinary moment where in a sense this is like a death before death,” Antony Gormley told Channel 4 News.

“Suddenly these works take on the aura or the mythos of a great mind that has suddenly been made absent.

“Ai Weiwei has been an indomitable hoarder of his own experience in relation to the authorities.

Artists condemn Ai Weiwei detention as exhibitions open

“He is un-silenceable and even the silence [of his incarceration] is speaking so loudly. Everybody is listening.”

He added: “I think it is clear that the Chinese government thinks that he has behaved illegally and they are using this as an excuse to silence him. That silence is speaking volumes about the power of the government and their wish to control the way people think, particularly within China.

“I think that Ai Weiwei is quite right that you cannot have a modern, international country that doesn’t play by democratic rules.

“The Chinese government should use their own law to treat him legally. He should have access to lawyers, he should have access to his wife. The fact that we have heard nothing is appalling and I call upon the Chinese government to make sure that he does get access to his lawyer and he does get access to his family.”

In October Ai Weiwei appeared on Channel 4 News to discuss the award of the Nobel peace prize to Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese human rights activist currently serving 11 years in prison for subversion of state power.

He said he did not think Liu Xiaobo’s award would affect Chinese government policies on freedom of speech and human rights “because they are quite stubborn on this matter”.

On Monday, a yoga teacher gave visitors to Tate Modern a naked surprise as she dropped her clothes in protest at Weiwei’s detention.

Charlotte Eaton, 32, walked naked across his sunflower seeds with a sunflower and “thank you Ai Weiwei” painted on her body.

She said her show of support was witnessed by around 40 bystanders who were visiting the exhibition and Tate Modern staff members and security but no one stopped her.

“No action was taken against me by security guards, and a member of the Tate’s press office smiled at me as I winked at her and left,” she said.