By Eleanor Tait
Durham Lumiere 2023 artist Ai Weiwei had exhibitions in London, New York, Paris and Berlin cancelled following a social media post about the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine; however, the organisers of Durham’s biennial light festival kept his work in the line-up.
Weiwei, a Chinese contemporary artist and activist, was one of over 40 artists who contributed to this year’s Lumiere, with his Illuminated Bottle Rack (2018) displayed inside the Chapter House of Durham Cathedral.
Shortly before Lumiere’s opening night on 16th November, Weiwei posted a comment on X (formerly Twitter) which made references to the Israel-Palestine conflict. In the post, Weiwei said: “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 [£2.4bn] 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.” The comment has since been deleted.
The Lisson Gallery, London, was the first to announce that the opening of Weiwei’s exhibition in November would no longer go ahead. They released a statement, saying: “We together agreed that now is not the right time to present his new body of work.
“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.
“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.” The Gallery has put the exhibition on hold indefinitely.
Following this announcement, Weiwei’s upcoming exhibitions in New York, and at Galerie Max Hetzler shows in Paris and Berlin were also cancelled.
Weiwei’s Illuminated Bottle Rack (2018), an enormous installation featuring 61 antique chandeliers inspired by Marcel Duchamp, continued to be exhibited in Durham Cathedral to the 160,000 members of the public who attended Durham Lumiere’s 2023 festival over four nights.
In a report by the BBC, Arts Council England, who partially funded Lumiere alongside Durham County Council, Durham University, and several others, commented that the choice to continue to exhibit Weiwei’s work was down to the organisers and their “artistic programme decisions and day-to-day management of their activities.”
The BBC also reported that a statement released for Lumiere said: “We always defend the artist’s right to express a view. We are pleased to be able to exhibit a work of Ai Weiwei’s at Lumiere 2023.”
Previously, Weiwei has laid a strong emphasis on his belief in the importance of expression, both in his artwork and activism. Speaking to The Art Newspaper on this topic, he remarked: “The cancellation of an exhibition is not important at all because tens of thousands of exhibitions are still going on.
“Without exaggeration, as a person or an artist, I can live without ever doing another exhibition, and I can live without art as the space of expression, but I cannot live without free thinking and free speech. That would mean the end of life.”
Weiwei also responded to Lumiere’s decision to continue to display his artwork, saying: “I saw that Illuminated Bottle Rack was exhibited at Durham’s Lumiere Festival.
“For an artist, every expression is akin to a facial expression – sometimes joyful, sometimes indignant. Ultimately, it is a form of countenance.”
He went on to suggest that: “[Lumiere] adhere to the principle of providing adequate space for free speech, including room for perspectives that diverge from mainstream thoughts. This embodies a characteristic of a healthy society and civilisation.”
Speaking to The Art Newspaper, in response to the announcements, Weiwei suggested that rescheduling may still be a possibility. He also told the publication that the Lisson Gallery’s decision not to go ahead with his exhibition was made “to avoid further disputes and for my own well-being,” adding that it was “well-received”.
Image: Lizzie Follows