By Isobel Leybold-Johnson
Concerns have been raised in Switzerland over the fate of the detained Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei, who has strong links to the Swiss art scene.
Ai gained international renown when he co-designed the Beijing Olympic stadium, the “Bird’s Nest”, with Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron. His first international solo exhibition was also held in Bern.
On Thursday China’s Foreign Ministry said Ai was being investigated “in accordance with the law” for “suspected economic crimes”.
Ai was stopped on Sunday from boarding a flight from Beijing to Hong Kong and taken away by border police, sparking condemnation from Western governments and Chinese human rights campaigners. Nothing had been heard about him before Thursday’s statement.
The burly, bearded Ai has mixed an international art contemporary career with colourful campaigns critical of government censorship and political restrictions.
He is the most prominent target so far in China’s massive crackdown on dozens of critics following online calls for protests similar to those in the Middle East and North Africa.
The Swiss foreign ministry told swissinfo.ch on Thursday that it had noted Ai’s arrest with “great concern”, and had contacted the Chinese authorities to express hope that the case would be resolved quickly.
The ministry added that it was concerned in general at the increasing number of arbitrary arrests of human rights activists, lawyers and artists in China, and called on the government to guarantee them a fair trial and access to lawyers of their choice.
Ai’s very first solo show was held in the Swiss capital Bern at the Kunsthalle in 2004. The director then was Bernard Fibicher, current head of the Cantonal Museum of Fine Art in Lausanne. He and Ai later went on to co-curate what Fibicher describes as “simply the biggest contemporary Chinese art exhibition ever held”, at the Kunstmuseum in Bern.
He expressed fear at Ai’s detention, but noted that Ai’s friends and fellow artists had expected it to happen. “But now that it’s happened it’s terrible news and all the more so as nobody really knows where he is detained.”
Fibischer said while it was important to find out where he was being detained and on what charges, the matter was “very delicate”.
“Of course there could be a big international uproar and many artists, curators and friends could join in big public protests, especially through the media, but this is not really what would help Weiwei because the Chinese government cannot allow itself to lose face,” he told swissinfo.ch.
“So it has to be done in a very subtle way and this is the main difficulty now.”
Urs Meile, of the Galerie Urs Meile Beijing Lucerne, which represents Ai, said it was important to have access to and able to talk to him. “The biggest shock has been that he disappeared,” he told swissinfo.ch.
The gallery has worked with him since 1997, helping to foster his career as he became internationally recognised. Ai is particularly interesting as an artist working both within and outside China, and so able to work from both perspectives.
“Ai Weiwei is a very influential and important person for young artists [in China], he does a lot of exchanges with them, he is always very open to discussion and talking.”
Ai was due to attend an auction in Hong Kong where he was meeting Chinese art collector Uli Sigg, a former Swiss ambassador to China, to talk to him about an exhibition featuring some of his works at the Lucerne Museum of Art.
Sigg told the Le Temps newspaper that he was “extremely disappointed” by what had happened to his close friend, but that he did not know the reasons for his arrest and could not comment on them. However, the way in which the arrest was carried out was not justified, he said.
He called on Switzerland to follow the affair closely given Ai’s strong links to the country and said that he was also intending to intervene on behalf of his friend.
The Lucerne Museum of Art says in a statement on its website that the “Shanshui – Poetry without words” exhibition due to open on May 20 would go ahead. The museum has said that it hoped that Ai, also a curator, would be able to attend the vernissage.
The Winterthur Photography Museum, which was planning to open the “Interlacing” solo show of Ai’s photographic works on May 27, is also hoping for the artist’s appearance, although it told Swiss public television it does not yet know how the situation will develop.
Meanwhile, the Art and Politics artists’ group has called on the government and the Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia to postpone cultural cooperation with China as long as artistic freedom is limited and for the government to press for Ai and others’ release.
Pro Helvetia, which has a Swiss Chinese Cultural Explorations country programme and an office in Shanghai, has countered that it would be wrong to stop collaboration.
“Pro Helvetia does not support any state initiatives, but supports independent artists. In times of stronger repression it is important to show international solidarity with Chinese artists,” spokeswoman Sabina Schwarzenbach told the Swiss news agency.
China itself has batted off international criticism of Ai’s detainment. On Wednesday a Chinese state-run newspaper, The Global Times, described him as a “maverick” who took part in legally ambiguous activities.
(With input from Jessica Dacey)