The disappearance of Ai Weiwei

Artist hasn't been since since Sunday.

I was in Beijing last Friday for the opening of The Art of the Enlightenment, a major Sino-German collaboration between the National Museum of China and the state museums of Berlin, Dresden and Munich. At a symposium the day after the ceremonial opening, the German foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle (who resigned yesterday as leader of the Free Democrats, the junior partner in Germany's governing coalition), declared that the Enlightenment was not the "invention of Europeans" and that countries the world over were converging on "freedom, democracy and the rule of law" -- though, Westerwelle was careful to stress, at their own speed and by following their "own way".

That caveat now looks grimly premonitory in the light of the news that the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei hasn't been seen since he was detained at Beijing airport on Sunday, the day after Westerwelle lavished such ornate diplomatic sensitivity on his hosts. The Guardian reports that items have also gone missing from his studio and quotes his wife, Lu Qing, as saying: "They asked me about Ai Weiwei's work and the articles he posted online . . . I told them that everything that Ai did was very public, and if they wanted to know his opinions and work they could just look at the internet."

Ai Weiwei, whose Sunflower Seeds installation is currently occupying the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, was due to have his first solo exhibition in this country at the Lisson Gallery in May. In a statement issued today, the gallery's director Greg Hilty said:

We are extremely alarmed by the detention of Ai Weiwei and his colleagues and are greatly concerned for his safety. Ai Weiwei is one of the leading cultural figures of his generation and consistently displays great courage in placing himself at risk to affect social change through his art. He serves as an example for legitimate social criticism and free expression both in China and internationally. Lisson Gallery has a long history of working with political artists and we strongly condemn any form of artistic suppression. We continue to support Ai Weiwei and are fully committed to staging his first solo exhibition at the gallery, opening 13 May 2011.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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The radio station where the loyal listeners are chickens

Emma Hills, the head chicken trainer at Giffords Circus, knows what gets them clucking.

“The music is for the chickens, because of course on the night the music is very loud, and so it needs to be a part of their environment from the very start.” Emma Hills, the head chicken trainer at Giffords Circus, is standing in the sawdusty ring under a big top in a field outside Stroud as several rare-breed chickens wander freely around boxes and down ramps. They are the comic stars of the summer 2017 show, and Emma is coaxing them to walk insouciantly around the ring while she plays the early-morning show on Radio 1.

It’s the chickens’ favourite station. There seems to be something about its longueurs, combined with the playlist, that gets them going – if that’s the word. They really do respond to the voices and songs. “It’s a bit painful, training,” Emma observes, as she moves a little tray of worms into position as a lure. “It’s a bit like watching paint dry sometimes. It’s all about repetition.”

Beyond the big top, a valley folds into limestone hills covered in wild parsley and the beginnings of elderblossom. Over the radio, Adele Roberts (weekdays, from 4am) hails her listeners countrywide. “Hello to Denzel, the happy trucker going north on the M6. And van driver Niki on the way from Norwich to Coventry, delivering all the things.” Pecking and quivering, the chickens are rather elegant, each with its fluffy, caramel-coloured legs and explosive feather bouffant, like a hat Elizabeth Taylor might have worn on her way to Gstaad in the 1970s.

Despite a spell of ennui during the new Harry Styles single, enthusiasm resumes as Adele bids “hello to Simon from Bournemouth on the M3 – he’s on his way to Stevenage delivering meat”. I don’t imagine Radio 1 could hope for a better review: to these pretty creatures, its spiel is as thrilling as opening night at the circus. Greasepaint, swags of velvet, acrobats limbering up with their proud, ironic grace. Gasps from beholders rippling wonder across the stalls.

Emma muses that her pupils learn fast. Like camels, a chicken never forgets.

“I’ve actually given up eating them,” she admits. “Last year I had only two weeks to train and it was like, ‘If they pull this off I won’t eat chicken ever again.’ And they did. So I didn’t.” 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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