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Politics over art

May 3, 2011

Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei could not attend the opening of his new exhibition in Germany. However, his absence has only helped to strengthen solidarity among politicians, organizations and individuals that back him.

The outside of the Neugerriemschneider gallery in Berlin bearing the 'Where is Ai Weiwei' banner
Ai Weiwei's supporters are sending a clear messageImage: Galerie Neugerriemschneider

"Where is Ai Weiwei" Visitors to the exhibition can't miss the huge banner on the outside of the Neugerriemschneider gallery in Berlin, which was created by artist Rirkrit Tiravanija for gallery owners Tim Neuger and Burkhard Riemschneider.

Closer to the exhibition room, in a back courtyard belonging to a group of old buildings, is an image with clear symbolism: one of Ai Weiwei's installations behind a barred window. Gnarly, bare-branched trees are visible through the metal bars.

On entering the gallery, the view becomes more pleasant; light illuminates the artwork, which is made from dead trees from southern China's mountain regions. Here they are living their second life, their seams and cracks revealing a sense of vulnerability.

A silent protest again the destruction of nature? At the documenta contemporary art event in Kassel in 2007, Ai Weiwei had used old wooden doors from historical buildings to portray his disapproval of sacrificing houses to China's construction boom.

At the Berlin exhibition, the work, which the artist called "Rock," includes chunks of porcelain lying under the trees. They are reminiscent of icebergs, or clouds that have fallen from the sky. Their white surface emits a delicate glow, with blue lines that highlight their contours.

The piece serves as a silent meditation on human interference with nature.

Ai Weiwei's 'Rock' installation at the Neugerriemschneider gallery in Berlin
This installation focuses on the environment, but Ai Weiwei's political situation is currently attracting more interest than his artImage: Ai Weiwei

Art overshadowed by politics

But debating the meaning of this artwork is not of high priority right now. The bigger question is: Where is Ai Weiwei? He has gone missing, and Chinese authorities are not providing any information as to his whereabouts. For this reason, most of the exhibition's visitors seem to be devoting more attention to the politics of the artist's situation rather than the art itself.

According to German video artist Klaus vom Bruch, Ai Weiwei's artistic talents are indisputable, but the appreciation of his work has been distorted by the recent political tribulations.

Germany's foreign minister Guido Westerwelle also visited the exhibition and has called for Ai Weiwei's immediate release. However, he is against closing the German-sponsored exhibition of Enlightenment art currently running in at the Chinese National Museum Beijing - as recently suggested by Norbert Lammert, president of the German Bundestag.

"I believe in the enlightening power of art," said Westerwelle. "And if we now closed down the 'Art of Enlightenment' in Beijing, the consequences would resemble a ban. It would prevent normal people from having access to Enlightenment art - to liberal streams of art."

Widespread support

Klaus Wowereit, Berlin's governing mayor, has also paid a visit to the exhibition.

"The fact that a Chinese artist - who has unfortunately disappeared and who has been literally torn away from his work by the Chinese dictatorship - is being exhibited here today is naturally something special," said Wowereit. "And it is also an opportunity to show solidarity once again."

An Amnesty International protest at the opening of the Ai Weiwei exhibition at the Neugerriemschneider gallery in Berlin
Amnesty International is petitioning for Ai Weiwei's releaseImage: AP

Ai Weiwei had planned to come to Berlin to celebrate the exhibition's opening. He was also planning to set up a studio in the German capital. Now his absence is all the more conspicuous.

The director of the German branch of Human Rights Watch, Wenzel Michalski, says that standards in human rights and freedom of speech in China are currently experiencing the biggest setback in years.

"We are trying to put pressure on governments around the world so that everyone in China is on the radar screen," said Michalski. "That's the only way to make sure Ai Weiwei and the other dissidents have a chance."

Symbolic actions

Meanwhile, Amnesty International has responded with a poster campaign outside the exhibition building, calling for the release of not only Ai Weiwei but of other detained dissidents, such as Nobel Prize-winning writer Liu Xiaobo. Anmesty has distributed flyers in the exhibition and is gathering signatures for a petition to free Ai Weiwei.

Visitors can also take home badges created by artist Rirkrit Tiravanija, bearing the phrase "Where is Ai Weiwei" - available in German, English and Chinese. All this is done with the awareness that, where real solutions are not immediately possible, symbolic actions are better than none at all.

Author: Aya Bach / ew
Editor: Kate Bowen