This week we learned that no one in the art world is immune to paying a professional price for expressing an opinion on Israel’s catastrophic invasion of Gaza — not even an artist as big as Ai Weiwei.
A new exhibition by the Chinese dissident artist, slated to open today, November 15, at London’s Lisson Gallery, was canceled after he posted, and later deleted, his two cents about the conflict on the social media platform X. Now, in a new statement shared with Hyperallergic, the artist tells his side of the story, disputing the widely reported narrative presented by Lisson Gallery and warning against “self-censorship” and “soft violence aimed at stifling voices” in the art world around the touchy subject of the Israel-Palestine conflict.
“I received notification from the gallery a few days prior to the exhibition’s opening. Essentially, I merely acknowledged their message stating the cancellation of my exhibition,” Ai said, refuting the gallery’s claim that it had “extensive conversations” with the artist before shutting down the show. Lisson Gallery has not yet responded to Hyperallergic‘s request for comment on Ai’s latest statement.
According to the BBC, three other exhibitions by the artist in New York, Paris, and Berlin have also been called off.
Ai’s now-removed post reportedly read: “The sense of guilt around the persecution of the Jewish people has been, at times, transferred to offset the Arab world. Financially, culturally, and in terms of media influence, the Jewish community has had a significant presence in the United States. The annual $3bn aid package to Israel has, for decades, been touted as one of the most valuable investments the United States has ever made. This partnership is often described as one of shared destiny.”
Lisson Gallery responded to the artist’s post with its own statement. “There is no place for debate that can be characterised as anti-Semitic or Islamophobic at a time when all efforts should be on ending the tragic suffering in Israeli and Palestinian territories, as well as in communities internationally,” the gallery said. “Ai Weiwei is well-known for his support of freedom of expression and for championing the oppressed, and we deeply respect and value our longstanding relationship with him.”
Speaking with the Art Newspaper, which first reported the story, Ai said he agreed to the show’s cancelation “to avoid further disputes and for my own well-being.” In his statement to Hyperallergic, however, the artist takes a different tone.
“Curators typically attribute such cancellations to unspecified reasons, assuming understanding without explicit communication,” he said. “This time, in the so-called free world since 2015, the abrupt cancellation is perplexing due to its unclear rationale, reminiscent of ‘reasons you know.’ Notably, several galleries globally, around three or four, faced recent exhibition cancellations, all shrouded in ambiguous circumstances. This trend underscores the gravity and scope of the situation across diverse geographical origins.”
Spending his early childhood in a labor camp alongside his father, the late Chinese poet Ai Qing, the artist grew up to become a major critic of China’s ruling Communist Party. He paid for his dissent with prison time, ongoing persecution, and a life in exile. In 2011, a few weeks before he was arrested in a Beijing airport and detained for 81 days without charges, China’s Ullens Center for Contemporary Art canceled an exhibition by the artist under pressure from government officials.
“I grew up in a Communist Party era where my father, a writer, endured a ban for over 20 years, facing far graver consequences,” Ai told Hyperallergic. “Our existence has consistently been viewed as oppositional to the regime, the nation, and even the people. This kind of canceling under the Cultural Revolution not only negates political and cultural influence but also erases one’s life; under this circumstance, hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives.”
In 2016, Ai filmed in Gaza for his documentary about the global refugee crisis, Human Flow (2017). He is also said to have shown sympathy for the Palestinian cause.
“While the suddenness is jarring, it doesn’t astonish me; what does surprise me is the application of violent means in today’s ostensibly democratic and free society to suppress cultural expression,” the artist said. “If culture is a form of soft power, this represents a method of soft violence aimed at stifling voices. It’s not directed solely at me but at the broader culture of a society lacking a spiritual immune system.”
He continued: “When a society cannot withstand diverse voices, it teeters on the brink of collapse. I am committed to voicing my perspective. The works to be exhibited at Lisson Gallery are inherently political, entwined with contemporary global cultural politics. The irony lies in staging such an exhibition precisely when art is most crucial for expressing alternative perspectives. Yet, self-censorship robs artists of this vital opportunity, a poignant contradiction in a time demanding diverse voices.”
When asked if he’s reconsidering his future with Lisson Gallery, the artist replied: “I don’t have any plans. It’s very hard to have any plans. Everything is quite uncertain … It very much depends on their decision.”