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Art as a human right

April 28, 2011

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei's works go on show Friday in Berlin, where he'd planned to establish a second residency. But the artist is still missing and that has Germany's cultural leaders in a quandary.

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei with his art installation 'Sunflower Seeds' in London last fall
Chinese artist Ai Weiwei with his installation 'Sunflower Seeds' in London last fallImage: AP

It is unusual for a German minister of culture to verbally pounce on a high-ranking German museum director in public. This week, German representatives from museums and cultural institutions who met at Berlin's Academy of Arts to discuss Ai Weiwei's plight witnessed such an event.

Following his opening remarks, German Culture Minister Bernd Neumann blasted Martin Roth, General Director of Dresden's State Art Collections. "I cannot really accept it when a participating museum director implies that Ai Weiwei could be partially responsible for his own arrest, due to his criticism of the Chinese state," Neumann said.

"That kind of low bow to the Chinese government has nothing to do with politeness; it's an act of chumming up and makes a mockery of a courageous and important artist," he went on, drawing applause from the audience.

Culture Minister Bernd Neumann
Culture Minister Bernd Neumann has not minced words when it comes to defending AiImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

Ai Weiwei conspicuously absent

Museum Director Roth is the initiator of the controversial "Art of Enlightenment" exhibition, which recently opened in Beijing's National Museum. The show, organized by directors from Berlin, Munich and Dresden's State Art Collections, displays nearly 600 exhibits that are intended to help explain the European Enlightenment to Chinese visitors. The Enlightenment was both a cultural and historical era which laid the foundation for liberal values and human rights across the continent.

Artist Ai Weiwei himself was scheduled to visit Berlin this week to kick off a show of his artworks on April 29, and to firm up his plans to establish a second residence in the German capital. His imprisonment has prompted the German culture scene to ponder whether quiet diplomacy is the right answer in Ai Weiwei's case, or whether a revolution to get him freed is more called for.

Neumann argued that international pressure is required. Only then would Chinese officials begin to question their moves, he said, adding that the Beijing exhibition's schedule of events should be changed to address the artist's predicament - opening it up to lectures and debates on the issue.

Just how that could happen, though, is also uncertain since the supporting program was designed under approval by Chinese authorities.

A man walking through the "Art of Enlightenment" exhibition in Beijing
The "Art of Enlightenment" exhibition opened at the beginning of April in BeijingImage: dapd

An age of understanding

Egon Bahr, a former journalist and Social Democratic politician who dramatically shaped West Germany's policies toward the GDR and Soviet Union in the 1960s under Chancellor Willy Brandt, was skeptical. Known as an architect of West Germany's "change through rapprochement" strategy, Bahr advocated a softer touch.

"If I insult the pride of such a huge, powerful country or discredit it, then I may end up with the opposite of what I wanted to achieve in the first place for a particular individual," he noted. "I can go on about human rights all I want, but I must never forget the individual people I could possibly help."

Klaus Staeck, President of Berlin's Academy of Arts noted that his request to car manufacturer BMW, which is sponsoring the Enlightenment exhibition, to wield some influence in Beijing has gone unheeded. He lamented Germany's double-standard of demanding human rights in China but not wanting to forego economic success.

"Our car manufacturers aren't really helping - I read about the car show in Shanghai and see that there are double-digit growth rates due to Germany's excellent auto engineering. It just doesn't fit together," he said. "I'd like to the see some Enlightenment here, too, for a change."

Ai Weiwei at documenta in Kassel in 2007
Ai Weiwei went to the documenta art show in Kassel in 2007Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Speaking freely

That comment also drew predictable applause. Yet no one on the podium suggested that the Beijing be closed down prematurely. Still, gallery director Alexander Ochs, who has a sister gallery in Beijing and has worked closely with Ai Weiwei, demanded that the exhibition's program of events be freed from its political clutches.

"Chinese artists and the Chinese art scene maintain a lot of distance from the state, and there are reasons for that," he pointed out. "And then we Germans come along and say we'll open up a discussion with you, but only if we do it in conjunction with the state."

Herman Parzinger agreed. As President of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which - as part of Berlin's State Art Collections - has been involved in the exhibition, he said it was a mistake to take the show to the National Museum.

"For all its good intentions, this close working relationship with the Chinese government has, in the end, become a problem," he admitted. "The hype surrounding this exhibition is what has steered it down a different path."

Amnesty International activists in Berlin
Human rights group Amnesty International has called for Ai Weiwei's releaseImage: picture alliance / dpa

An artistic exchange

German foreign cultural politics have rarely been so hotly debated as in the weeks since Ai Weiwei's arrest. But all that discourse still isn't helping the artist. The only option for Germany's culture scene, it seems, at least at the moment, is to help other Chinese artists - without endangering them.

"China is not a monolithic block," said Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, president of Germany's cultural ambassador, the Goethe-Institut, which has offices around the world. "There are all sorts of movements going on in the country, and the task at hand is recognizing them, understanding and making the most of them."

Denouncing unacceptable matters is one thing, and should be done, he noted, but the more long-term approach to supporting Chinese artists is to provide opportunities for exchange.

Author: Aya Bach / als
Editor: Kate Bowen