It’s a free market—even if the artist isn’t

Despite criticism of Chinese government over Ai Weiwei’s arrest, galleries still happy to show in Hong Kong

A worker installs a two-storey-high protest banner of Ai Weiwei outside Lisson in London on Wednesday. The gallery travels to China this month to take part in Art HK (REUTERS/Andrew Winning)

LONDON. The art world has erupted in spontaneous protests since the detention of Ai Weiwei by Chinese authorities on 3 April. There have been exhibitions, petitions, sit-ins, and many, many speeches. But will any galleries now take their protest one stage further and boycott an art fair in Hong Kong which gives them access to the rising Asian market?

Lisson gallery in London and neugerriemschneider in Berlin are both hosting shows of work by Ai Weiwei and both galleries have draped giant banners in his support on their façades. Both are also scheduled to participate in Art HK, which opens on 26 May. Another gallery taking part is the artist’s Swiss dealer Urs Meile which is based in Lucerne and also has a branch in Beijing.

Yesterday a British blogger who writes under the name Cathedral of Shit called for the galleries taking part to “have a think about [what] their presence there signifies.” Speaking to The Art Newspaper, the blogger, who asked to remain anonymous, said he welcomed the many protests in support of Ai Weiwei that had taken place in London, Berlin and New York. However he believes that “Art HK is really where the proof of the pudding lies because you can’t make a protest…and then go and do Art HK and clean up on the Ai Weiwei works which happen to be on your stand.”

“There are two positions,” he continued. “One is to say: ‘Look, we’re a commercial gallery, we’re not going to get into politics, we’re not going to make a protest and we are going to do Art HK.’ The other one is to say: ‘Actually we are going to make some sort of statement here. There is a problem we want to draw attention to. We’re either going to withdraw from Hong Kong or we’re going to make a stand there which will not be for commercial gain. For example, we’ll man our booth but not put any works on display.’”

“What you can’t do is [take a position] in the middle where you say: ‘We are going to protest about Ai Weiwei but we’re also going to carry on trading as normal.’”

The blogger questioned whether it was right to sell work by Ai Weiwei in China or to sell work by artists such as Anish Kapoor who have spoken out in support of the imprisoned artist.

Kapoor, who is also represented by the Lisson gallery, this week unveiled a giant installation entitled Leviathan at the Grand Palais in Paris. He dedicated it to Ai Weiwei and said the art world should do more to support the Chinese artist. He called on museums around the world to close for a day in protest at Ai’s detention.

“I think it would be a bit sad if you went to the Lisson gallery stand at Art HK and it was full of [work by] Ai Weiwei and Anish Kapoor which was being eagerly bought up by Chinese buyers,” said the blogger.

The Lisson gallery declined to comment on its participation in the fair. In an email, curatorial director Greg Hilty said: “Lisson has just opened its [Ai Weiwei] show in London to considerable and positive attention; our focus now is on responding to the remarkable public interest in Ai Weiwei’s work and current position, and taking appropriate action as the situation unfolds.”

Neugerriemschneider gallery was unable to comment in time to meet The Art Newspaper’s deadline and the Urs Meile gallery did not respond to repeated emails and phone calls. Several other galleries taking part in Art HK which were contacted by The Art Newspaper declined to comment.

Despite the art world’s concern over the fate of Ai Weiwei, it remains to be seen if any galleries pull out of the Chinese fair which has just been bought by MCH Swiss Exhibition Ltd, the company which organizes the two most prestigious modern and contemporary art fairs in the world, Art Basel and Art Basel Miami Beach.

“Art HK is the hottest fair right now because it gives access to the Asian market which is huge and growing larger all the time. Galleries are unlikely to want to give up their spot,” says art market specialist Georgina Adam.

Not everyone is convinced they should. Jannie Haagemann, curator at the Faurschou gallery in Copenhagen and Beijing said: “All of us in the West can agree that what has happened to Ai Weiwei is terrible. We can write, talk and protest, but I'm afraid this will not change the situation for Ai Weiwei. Unfortunately, I think as long as he is in the middle of everyone’s attention worldwide, the Chinese authorities will not release him,” she said suggesting that the most effective action would be high-level political pressure behind the scene, adding: “What we can do in the art world is to continue showing his works.”

In an email to The Art Newspaper a spokesman for Art HK said: “There are 260 galleries participating in [the fair], and we understand that they will all be attending. We expect a number of the galleries exhibiting will present works by [Ai Weiwei], alongside works by over 1,000 other artists represented by galleries from 38 countries around the world.”

UPDATE, 17 May 2011: After our story went online, Galerie Urs Meile contacted us to say they would be bringing Ai Weiwei's Marble Arm, 2007, to Art HK. The work depicts an outstretched arm raising the middle finger.

On Tuesday 17 May, Lisson Gallery released a statement to the press regarding their attendance at Art HK, saying: "We have gone on record as deploring the detention of Ai Weiwei by the Chinese authorities and remain committed to the campaign to secure his release and keep his case debated publicly.

"ART HK is an important international art fair that takes place in a special administrative region of China with its own democratic process, greater freedom of press and an independent judiciary. Hong Kong is a gateway to the entire Asian region, not just China, and its ART HK fair, auction houses and galleries represent the plurality of Asian voices and identities.

"At this stage we feel that we can do more for Ai Weiwei by being present at the fair. By continuing to show his work we build new audiences for it and draw attention to his plight. We also wish to show our support for those people in Hong Kong who have come out on to the streets to protest in greater numbers than in any city in the West. To withdraw from ART HK and not show work by the artist would make us complicit in the authorities’ attempt to silence him and his supporters."

More from The Art Newspaper


16 May 11
15:18 CET


If the sales money share goes to Ai Weiwei is that wrong? Will the Chinese government prosecute those Chinese who buy and display his work? I don't see how boycotting Chinese buyers helps the situation. In fact couldn't his increased sales help his cause?

15 May 11
19:1 CET


If the art world has any integrity it will boycott China and this includes not participating in Chinese art fairs, not showing Chinese artists, not selling to Chinese collectors, not supporting Chinese products. There are no moral justifications for acquiescing to a repressive system no matter how one spins them. As the old saying in the 60s goes--if you are not part of the solution,you are part of the problem.

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