Lisson Gallery has indefinitely put on hold an exhibition of new works by the Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei, which had been due to open in London this week, following a statement posted by Ai on social media relating to the Israel-Hamas war.
The artist tells The Art Newspaper that his show has "effectively [been] cancelled", noting that the decision was taken "to avoid further disputes and for my own well-being". Ai says "these good intentions" have been "well-received".
The tweet, which Ai posted in response to a follower’s question on X (formerly Twitter) and which he has since deleted, read: "The sense of guilt around the persecution of the Jewish people has been, at times, transferred to offset the Arab world. Financially, culturally, and in terms of media influence, the Jewish community has had a significant presence in the United States. The annual $3bn aid package to Israel has, for decades, been touted as one of the most valuable investments the United States has ever made. This partnership is often described as one of shared destiny.”
It is not clear whether Ai’s show will now be rescheduled. A spokesperson for Lisson Gallery says the matter is “still in discussion”, with lead times for exhibitions often stretching into years. According to a statement provided by the gallery, there were “extensive conversations” with Ai following the comment he posted online.
The statement continues: “We together agreed that now is not the right time to present his new body of work. There is no place for debate that can be characterised as antisemitic or Islamophobic at a time when all efforts should be on ending the tragic suffering in Israeli and Palestinian territories, as well as in communities internationally. Ai Weiwei is well-known for his support of freedom of expression and for championing the oppressed, and we deeply respect and value our longstanding relationship with him.”
Ai says that, in the tweet, he "attempted to be objective and neutral without moral judgment, accusations, or evaluation of human actions". But, hinting at the brevity and lack of nuance that social media posts can be prone to, he adds: "I understand that societal behaviour, whether at a national, collective, or religious level, cannot be oversimplified. This means we cannot use a simple moral framework to express the so-called 'correct' expression."
For Ai, this raises crucial questions about freedom of speech. "If we cannot use simple ways to express a complicated question, does that mean expression becomes unnecessary, or that the so-called ‘incorrect’ expression becomes unnecessary?" he asks. He continues: "This is a fundamental aspect of free expression. For someone working in art, expression has never been about seeking correct expression. The most fundamental meaning of expression is free expression—expressing, as much as possible, based on objective facts, often without reaching a conclusion. We shouldn’t abandon expression because there is no conclusion; otherwise, we would be abandoning art, creativity, and creation."
Born in Beijing in 1957, Ai grew up in labour camps in northwest China after the exile of his father, the poet Ai Qing. Though a longtime Communist, Ai Qing became a target first of the official Anti-Rightist campaign, in 1957, and then of the Cultural Revolution. As a result, Ai has long been an outspoken critic of the Chinese authorities and an advocate for human rights. In 2011, the artist was arrested at Beijing Capital International Airport and detained for 81 days as part of the government’s crackdown on activists. In 2015 he left China for the last time and is now based in Lisbon, Portugal.
Ai has also been vocal in his support for Palestinians. In 2016, he travelled to Gaza while filming for his feature-length documentary, Human Flow, about the global refugee crisis.
“I have always regarded free expression as a value most worth fighting for and caring about, even if it brings me various misfortunes,” Ai says. “My father, as a poet, suffered unfair treatment, detainment, labour reformation, and almost lost his life simply because of his attitude. If he had lost his life, I would not exist.”
Ai says “all kinds of opinions” should be valued, “even when they are not correct”. As he puts it: “Incorrect opinions should be especially encouraged. If free expression is limited to the same kind of opinions, it becomes an imprisonment of expression. Freedom of speech is about different voices, voices different from ours.”
He adds: “Countless writers, artists, and people facing difficult living situations provide different voices that are often like a ray of light that makes darkness less scary. I might be saying a bit too much here. What I say is not important. The cancellation of an exhibition is not important at all because tens of thousands of exhibitions are still going on. Without exaggeration, as a person or an artist, I can live without ever doing another exhibition, and I can live without art as the space of expression, but I cannot live without free thinking and free speech. That would mean the end of life.”
Editor's note: Ai Weiwei's tweet was posted in Chinese [Mandarin]. His studio provided the translation published by The Art Newspaper, which they say accurately reflects Ai's original tweet.
UPDATE 16 November: Ai Weiwei's studio says three further exhibitions have been cancelled. They include another Lisson Gallery show due to open on 5 March 2024 in New York and two shows at Galerie Max Hetzler in Paris (4 November–6 January 2024) and Galerie Max Hetzler Berlin (June–August 2025)