Detained Chinese Artist Ai Weiwei Sparks Debate In Germany

Originally published on May 6, 2011 4:18 pm

The arrest of Ai Weiwei, one of China's most prominent artists, has triggered protests internationally.

Leading cultural institutions have been showing public solidarity for the detained artist. Berlin's Academy of the Arts organized a debate with representatives from Germany's art world, including China scholar Tilman Spengler.

"I am not so sure whether the present Chinese government or the leaders of the party are so terribly impressed by what people on the streets of Berlin do," Spengler says, "but of course history has shown that some people are in danger of being forgotten. We put a stop to the possibility of forgetting, not only Ai Weiwei, but all the others that are imprisoned or God knows where."

The disappearance of Ai Weiwei coincided with the opening of "The Art of Enlightenment" at Beijing's National Museum, an exhibition organized by Germany's three biggest art museums, primarily financed by the German Foreign Office.

On display are nearly 600 artworks which exemplify the ideas of European Enlightenment - an era that laid the ground for liberal values and human rights.

Since Ai Weiwei's arrest, members of the German Bundestag have called for a premature end to the exhibition in Beijing; a kind of protest that is not shared by Tilman Spengler.

He says he feels the gospel of Enlightenment should be spread and points out that in the last five years, the situation for artists in China has become harsher.

"This realm of culture, be it literature, be it music, or paintings is being driven into an area where not many people take notice of it. It's not a minority occupation, but it's somewhere in the outskirts of public interest."

Chinese art historian Cheng Yang, who lives in Beijing and Berlin, appreciated the debate at the Academy of the Arts, but she says she finds the European discussion on China polarizing.

"I do see the big picture, that we are either not close to the truth. We are not close to anywhere we can trust each other, where we can establish a mutual communication in a proper way," Yang says.

Meanwhile, Ai Weiwei's solo exhibition "Rock" and "Tree" has opened at the Berlin gallery Neugerriemschneider.

A large banner reading "Where is Ai Weiwei" is hung in front of the gallery.

Inside, Ai Weiwei's sculptures turn the gallery into a garden, a meditative space. Two trees built from fallen trunks are surrounded by a series of porcelain stones. Conceived by the artist for the gallery space, the art pieces were executed using ancient Chinese handcraft traditions.

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