Are strong words enough to support dissidents?
Institutions working with China may face calls to do more as critical voices are silenced there
By Javier Pes and Helen Stoilas. News, Issue 225, June 2011
Published online: 26 May 2011
london/new york. Western artists, museums and galleries were among the first to protest at the arrest of the artist Ai Weiwei by the Chinese authorities on 3 April. But, with no sign of his release or the release of numerous other political prisoners, including Nobel Peace Prize-winner Liu Xiaobo, as we went to press, will museums come under pressure to reconsider their policies, especially those organising exhibitions with China?
Directors including Richard Armstrong of the Guggenheim, Glenn Lowry of the Museum of Modern Art, Michael Govan of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Nicholas Serota of the Tate and Chris Dercon of Tate Modern, joined artists, curators and dealers to issue statements and sign petitions calling for his release from detention. Dercon, speaking at the opening at Somerset House in London of Ai’s Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads last month, was particularly trenchant: “To demand [his] release is a matter of life and truth,” a major shift in the Tate’s previous position. When Ai was briefly put under house arrest in December, a spokeswoman told us: “[The] Tate does not comment on the political opinions or legal activities of artists.”
Meanwhile, the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego staged an overnight sit-in, with participants occupying two traditional Chinese chairs, a reference to an installation by Ai who has created numerous political works and projects. Indeed, some in China argue that the beginning of Ai’s serious trouble was his protest against the jerry-built “tofu school buildings” which resulted in the death of more than 5,000 school children in the Sichuan earthquake, three years ago. The artist and 40 volunteers compiled a detailed record of all the child victims—during which period the team was interrogated by police more than 20 times.
“As his detention lengthens, we grow more concerned for Ai’s welfare and want to make a collective gesture in support of his release,” said Hugh Davies, the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. Chief curator Kathryn Kanjo described the artist’s detention as a “game changer, important not only in terms of contemporary art but also in terms of political events. Secretary [Hillary] Clinton is identifying Ai Weiwei by name. As civically engaged individuals, and especially for those of us working in cultural institutions, we’re compelled to call attention to the situation.”
But are symbolic protests enough? In Germany, the three state museums of Berlin, Munich and Dresden, which mounted the major “Art of the Enlightenment” show in Beijing (The Art Newspaper, April, p41), have been criticised by the press and public (see related article) for not taking a more critical stance. Museums, artists and gallery owners may well come under public pressure to do more: the radical protest group Avaaz.org has organised an online petition, saying, “We urge you to stop exhibiting your art in China until Ai Weiwei is free.” More than 127,000 people had signed up by the end of last month.
Nevertheless, most museums with links to China intend to continue with shows and loans. A 1,000 sq. m hall in the National Museum of China is due to host exhibitions drawing on the collections of Italy’s museums, part of a co-operation deal signed last year by the then Italian culture minister and his Chinese counterpart.
Two of the UK’s leading museums are working with the British Council on a major exhibition also at the National Museum of China. The British Museum (BM) and the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) will be lending 150 masterpieces of Chinese ceramics, for a show that is due to open in 2012.
The V&A is also sending two other exhibitions to China, including “British Design 1948-2012” at the Shanghai Art Museum. These were announced by the British prime minister David Cameron while on a trade mission to China in November last year, where he was accompanied by the directors of both UK museums. At the time Ai called on Cameron to speak out about China’s human rights record. “For anyone doing big business with China not to mention those universal values is putting money and short term profit before very important values. It’s shameful,” said Ai.
Martin Davidson, the chief executive of the British Council, acknowledged that if Ai’s detention continues into 2012 it “could create difficulties for the participating organisations”. For the time being, he says, “we will continue our range of cultural work in China”, while sharing the concerns expressed at the artist’s fate.
The directors of the V&A and BM declined to be interviewed about the issues raised by Ai’s arrest. A spokeswoman for the BM said: “The [BM] stands for cultural dialogue and exchange even when the political situation may be difficult.” A spokeswoman for the V&A said: “We remain committed to our international programme.”
While any institutional soul-searching in Britain is being done behind closed doors, the directors of US museums are more willing to talk—even if they too are favouring “ongoing dialogue”, rather than radical action.
Kaywin Feldman, the president of the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) and the director of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, said: “AAMD can have more impact by continuing to work directly with Chinese colleagues and institutions, and by using those relationships to demonstrate [to the Chinese government] the importance of freedom of speech and the rights of individuals.”
Christine Starkman, the Asian art curator at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, which hopes to share exhibitions with the Shanghai museum among others, said: “We want to let the Chinese government know this arrest is noticed, they need to understand these artists are ambassadors to the world.” The wording of any calls on the Chinese government needs to be diplomatic, she stressed. “We’re going back to China saying: ‘You’re still a great civilisation, show it.’”
Others feel a stronger stance might be more productive. Alexandra Munroe, the senior curator of Asian art at the Guggenheim, said that before launching its online petition: “We checked with those close to Ai’s extralegal case, including the US department of state, and were encouraged that our action ‘couldn’t hurt and might help’.” The petition expresses “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.”
Most are reluctant to protest too vociferously, however. Alex Nyerges, the director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA), which just announced a multi-year agreement with China, which includes the international exchange of curators and loan exhibitions planned for 2014, said: “I think the notion of boycotting is not only unacceptable but naïve.” He added: “What happens when we do that and then France, Germany, pick any country, does the same because of the US stance on, say, Guantanamo Bay? It would be patently unfair, and completely unproductive to what we support the most, bridging cultural divides.”
See our June print edition, p64 for a review of a new film on Ai
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