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Ai Weiwei has pulled his work from Denmark – should Melbourne be next?

Weiwei has taken Denmark to task for its asylum-seeker policy. Australia, for now, is another issue. EPA/Filip Singer

Ai Weiwei has pulled his work from Denmark – should Melbourne be next?

On ArtsHub last week, a grants manager for “a significant Australian arts organisation” wrote anonymously that, should his or her organisation be a successful applicant to Catalyst – the Federal Government’s new arts funding agency – he or she would recommend to the Board that it not accept the funds in protest at the Australian government’s plans to return 267 asylum seekers to Nauru.

Drawing inspiration from the artists’ boycott of the 2014 Sydney Biennale, and perhaps emboldened by the new cultural activism epitomised by last year’s #freethearts campaign, the grants manager raised the question of whether Ai Weiwei should end his current exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) in protest:

I wonder If Weiwei will follow through by pulling his work from the NGV’s Andy Warhol | Ai Wei Wei blockbuster?

Weiwei, of course, did something similar in late January at the ARoS Aarhus Art Museum and Copenhagen’s Faurschou Foundation in response to a recently-passed bill that allows Danish authorities to seize assets from asylum seekers.

The anonymous grants manager also bemoaned the fact that:

Given the bipartisan determination to wipe asylum seeker rights from the national conscience I doubt Australia’s latest move will reach [Weiwei’s] ears.

But, of course, the world is much smaller than that.

Weiwei follows my company NYID on Twitter and on Friday we tweeted him the question:

Would you consider pulling your exhibition from the NGV Melbourne?

His response was to re-tweet the tweet:


Weiwei is an adept user of social media. I think of him as a social media artist. Whether Twitter, Instagram, Facebook or blog, he has embraced social media as both a distributor of his work and opinions, and as a new aesthetic terrain.

In an interview with curator Hans Ulrich Obrist in 2011, the “blog” is referred to as “social sculpture”. Elsewhere in that same interview, Weiwei states:

The blog is the modern drawing.

His high online visibility has also given him a degree of international fame as a dissident that has proved invaluable when subject to the various confinement strategies of the Chinese government.

It is well-known his passport was confiscated for more than four years and only returned last July, a situation that had prevented him from leaving China.

His new-found freedom has allowed him to behave globally as, in his own words, “somebody who triggers or initiates things”.

Last week Weiwei triggered a controversy when a recreation of the 2015 photograph of drowned Syrian refugee infant Alan Kurdi on the Greek island of Lesbos went viral.


In the storm of criticism and support that met the image and its circulation, Weiwei asserted that the photograph had come about spontaneously during his research on Europe’s refugee crisis.

Iranian-American academic Hamid Dabashi, writing for Al Jazeera on February 4, went as far as declaring the image signalled the death of Weiwei’s artistic career.

While that’s unlikely, the incident draws attention to the ethical conundrum Ai Weiwei faces as an artist in the thrall of the aesthetics of social media.

Dabashi conflated the indifference suffered by the protagonist of Franz Kafka’s The Hunger Artist with Ai Weiwei’s efforts:

Like Kafka’s Hunger Artist, there is nothing beyond a passing internet curiosity about even a world-renowned artist who may even fake death to stage a colossal human tragedy, but alas the public that he wishes to convince of something or another has always already scrolled down the page of history to the next atrocity.

How can you create profound artistic meaning when the frame of reception moves on a cursor click?

Weiwei’s conundrum is no less problematic in the offline world. In announcing the closure of his show at Faurschou Foundation, he stated:

The way I can protest is that I can withdraw my works from that country. It is very simple, very symbolic – I cannot co-exist, I cannot stand in front of these people, and see these policies. It is a personal act, very simple; an artist trying not just to watch events but to act, and I made this decision spontaneously.

Weiwei has nailed his colours to the mast. He has taken Denmark to task for its asylum-seeker policy and so, as was pointed out in The Guardian last weekend, he can be rightly accused of inconsistency if he fails to pull his contribution to the double-feature Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei at the NGV.

Art critic Toby Fehily offers a solution. Alluding to the Letgo Room at the NGV exhibiting 20 faux-Lego portraits of Australian activists, Fehily suggested in The Guardian last Sunday that Weiwei:

boycott Australia’s offshore detention policy, tear that NGV installation down, and donate the bricks instead to the children in detention.

Ai Weiwei posing in the Letgo room at his Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei exhibition in Melbourne. Tracey Nearmy/AAP

But can he pull down just one part of his contribution to the exhibition? Is that enough?

As I’ve argued previously on The Conversation, in regard to the artists’ boycott of the 2014 Sydney Biennale:

Whether economic, philosophical, social or cultural, the context in which an artwork is created and the complicity of the artist within that context is intrinsic to its meaning.

By withdrawing his work from the Danish museum and gallery, Weiwei has created a context of his own making which is framed by his ethical position on the asylum-seeker issue.

And for this reason his complicity is rather more complicated than that faced by the artists of the 2014 Sydney Biennale, whose context was created externally by the producing company’s direct relationship to a sponsor.

The question is: does Weiwei’s art lose its meaning if, in the face of the Federal Government’s decision to return 267 asylum-seekers to Nauru, he fails to act as he did in Denmark?

Only Ai Wei Wei can make the call.

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