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.