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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Harry Styles: What can three blank Instagram posts tell us about music promotion?

Do the One Direction star’s latest posts tell us about the future of music promotion in the social media age - or take us back to a bygone era?

Yesterday, Harry Styles posted three identical, captionless blank images to Instagram. He offered no explanation on any other social network, and left no clue via location serves or tagged accounts as to what the pictures might mean. There was nothing about any of the individual images that suggested they might have significance beyond their surface existence.

And, predictably, they brought in over a million likes – and thousands of Styles fans decoding them with the forensic dedication of the cast of Silent Witness.

Of course, the Instagrams are deliberately provocative in their vagueness. They reminded me of Robert Rauschenberg’s three-panelled White Painting (1951), or Robert Ryman’s Untitled, three square blank canvases that hang in the Pompidou Centre. The composer John Cage claimed that the significance of Rauschenberg’s White Paintings lay in their status as receptive surfaces that respond to the world around them. The significance of Styles’s Instagrams arguably, too, only gain cultural relevance as his audience engages with them.

So what did fans make of the cryptic posts? Some posited a modelling career announcement would follow, others theorised that it was a nod to a Taylor Swift song “Blank Space”, and that the former couple would soon confirm they were back together. Still more thought this suggested an oncoming solo album launch.

You can understand why a solo album launch would be on the tip of most fans’ tongues. Instagram has become a popular platform for the cryptic musical announcement — In April, Beyoncé teased Lemonade’s world premiere with a short Instagram video – keeping her face, and the significance behind the title Lemonade, hidden.

Creating a void is often seen as the ultimate way to tease fans and whet appetites. In June last year, The 1975 temporarily deleted their Instagram, a key platform in building the band’s grungy, black and white brand, in the lead up to the announcement of their second album, which involved a shift in aesthetic to pastel pinks and bright neons.

The Weekend wiped his, too, just last week – ahead of the release of his new single “Starboy”. Blank Instagrams are popular across the network. Jaden Smith has posted hundreds of them, seemingly with no wider philosophical point behind them, though he did tweet in April last year, “Instagram Is A BlackHole Of Time And Energy.”

The motive behind Harry’s blank posts perhaps seems somewhat anticlimactic – an interview with magazine Another Man, and three covers, with three different hairstyles, to go along with it. But presumably the interview coincides with the promotion of something new – hopefully, something other than his new film Dunkirk and the latest update on his beloved tresses. In fact, those blank Instagrams could lead to a surprisingly traditional form of celebrity announcement – one that surfaces to the world via the print press.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.