London gallery to represent Chinese activist

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The Independent Culture

One of the world’s most prestigious galleries has announced it is to represent Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei as the artist faces mounting pressure in his homeland for his pro-democracy politics.

London's Lisson Gallery has become the first Western institution to represent Ai, whose Sunflower Seeds installation is currently on display in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. Ai was dramatically prevented from leaving Beijing last week after Chinese authorities claimed he was intending to make a political protest at today’s Nobel Peace Prize presentation ceremony in Oslo. The gallery will hold an exhibition of the artist’s work in May.

“We find that Ai Weiwei connects extremely closely with the global art world and that accompanies an increasing cultural traffic between China and the rest of the world,” said Greg Hilty, Lisson Gallery’s curatorial director. “In previous times local issues may have gone unnoticed but increasingly the world’s gaze is going to rest on China. Questions that may have gone unanswered may now provoke international opinion. This is a timely step change in the relationship between Chinese artists and the global community.” Hilty said the decision had been made purely on the artistic merit of Ai’s work.

After Chinese authorities prevented Ai from exiting China last week the artist denied he was intending to fly to Norway. The claim was backed up by Hilty, who was in Beijing last week to finalise the deal alongside Lisson’s founder Nicholas Logsdail. “He was keen to travel to Korea and Europe to pursue exhibition projects there and there may have been concern from the authorities that he was to use the prize for political aims,” added Hilty. The curatorial director denied the artist would use the opportunity to establish a permanent base in London. “He is well established in China, he has a strong friendships with producers, for example those who have helped him make the porcelain pieces for his work in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. He is part of the culture and the creative economy in China.”

Ai told last week how officials warned he might harm national security if he left China. The Chinese government is upset at Nobel committee’s decision to give the Peace Prize to Liu, who is serving an 11-year prison sentence for “incitement to subversion” for co-authoring Charter 08, an appeal for democratic reform. Friends of Liu have been reportedly been placed under house arrest or increased surveillance in the weeks running up to the ceremony.

“They said I am very close to going to jail,” said the artist last month. “I hope it doesn’t come to that. But I’m ready for it, because I believe the core value of an artist must be to express yourself freely and fight for the freedom of others.”

Ai was born in 1957 in Beijing, where he still lives and works. He has exhibited at New York’s Guggenheim, Tate Liverpool, and at numerous other high profile galleries around the world. Last month he was placed under house arrest after the authorities expressed concern of his intention to celebrate the forced demolition of his studio. The artist had promised to feed guests 10,000 “river crabs” or “he xie” a homonym for “harmony” in Chinese and a dig at official dig at governmental rhetoric over creating a “harmonious society”.

“We have had a growing appreciation of Ai Weiwei’s work and achievement over the last few years and are very pleased that this most significant of world artists has agreed to work with us,” added Logsdail. “The idea-based and sculptural nature of his work adds significantly to Lisson Gallery’s evolving history.” Lisson Gallery also represents artists such as Cory Arcangel, Christine Borland, Allora & Calzadilla.