BEIJING (Reuters) - Organizers of an art show in the Chinese capital have left an empty space on a gallery wall for detained artist-activist Ai Weiwei in a rare gesture of open defiance of the authorities.
A small tag with Ai’s name adorns a blank wall among 19 other artists’ work at an annual photography show that opened Wednesday, almost two months after police seized Ai Weiwei at Beijing’s airport, igniting an international outcry.
The organizers’ gesture of support for China’s most politically controversial artist is a rare public display from mainland China’s artistic community, which has largely stayed silent about Ai’s detention.
“We feel regret because his voice can’t be heard,” said Lin Bing, a photographer who helped organize the show at the gallery CCD300, in Beijing’s Caochangdi art area.
“It has made us think about when an artist loses the possibility of expressing himself.”
Shi Yong, the owner of the gallery, said the exhibition was normal and legal, but Lin said he received phone calls from the police bureau after the show opened asking him to come in for a discussion. Organizers could not be reached by phone later.
China’s state media and foreign ministry have said Ai is being investigated for tax avoidance and related charges. His family have said they have not been formally told about such charges and reject them as smears intended to silence him.
Ai had supported the Incidental Art Festival — now in its third year — and exhibited art at past shows, said Lin. If it were not for the “special situation,” he said, his work would have been included again.
Chinese police told state media last month that a company Ai controlled, The Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd., had evaded a “huge amount” of taxes and destroyed accounting documents.
But family members and supporters say the outspoken 53-year-old artist is a victim of a crackdown on political dissent.
Beijing’s alarm about dissent intensified after overseas Chinese websites in February spread calls for protests across China inspired by the “Jasmine Revolution” of anti-authoritarian uprisings across the Arab world.
Ai’s career encompasses protests for artistic freedom in 1979, provocative works in the 1990s and a role in designing the Bird’s Nest stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
The exhibition comes at an especially sensitive time, as China braces for Saturday’s 22nd anniversary of the government’s deadly mobilization of the military to clear pro-democracy protests focused on Tiananmen Square in 1989.
One man with the surname Xie who came to see the exhibition took a photo in front of the white wall with Ai’s name tag.
“He doesn’t have his freedom, but his honor is being defended,” he said, pointing to the wall.
Ai’s wife Lu Qing told Reuters that after almost 60 days since his detention she has still not been notified by authorities regarding his charges and has been able to meet with him only once to discuss his health.
“There was no way to have a piece of his work hung for the show, but I think the fact that there is a blank wall in its place gives his voice extra force,” she said of the exhibition.
Editing by Sanjeev Miglani