The Organizers of a Major U.K. Exhibition Used My Name to Promote Their Show. But They Were Too Afraid to Embrace My Ideas

"The Great Big Art Exhibition" rejected an artwork I made that focused on political prisoners. What was the real reason?

Ai Weiwei. Photo Carl Court/Getty Images.
Ai Weiwei. Photo Carl Court/Getty Images.

What is art and what is its purpose? What is its relevance to our post-industrialist and consumption-oriented world? These questions may seem banal, but they are especially pertinent if we look at “The Great Big Art Exhibition,” organised by the U.K. visual arts organisation Firstsite this year. I am very honored to share that my 2021 project Postcard for Political Prisoners was not accepted—and that their rejection gave a real meaning to my artwork.

Erica Bolton, a public relations specialist who worked for Firstsite on the exhibition, contacted us earlier this year, on January 18, through Greg Hilty, the curatorial director of Lisson Gallery, and invited me to take part in the nationwide show—which claims to be the U.K.’s largest-ever art exhibition and a celebration of creativity to counter the gloom of the pandemic. In collaboration with Art U.K., The Big Draw, Voluntary Arts, and supported by the Plus Tate network of 35 museums and galleries across the U.K., the idea is that Britain’s leading artists would choose a different theme every two weeks and that people could join up virtually to produce artworks together. In the initial information I received from Bolton, we were told that “artworks can be made of anything,” and that key works from across the U.K. would be made available for download. 

Their slogan goes: “The doors to our collections and galleries might be shut but art and expression will be unleashed as never before across the U.K.” 

On January 22, Sally Shaw, the director of Firstsite who was leading the project, had a phone meeting with my studio’s press and publications manager at that time. Between January and April, there was a constant flow of WhatsApp communications between the studio and Stuart Tulloch, Firstsite’s head of program, about the specifics of my contribution.

Ai Weiwei’s treadmill from Julian Assange, photographed in October 2016. Courtesy Ai Weiwei.

On April 22, my artwork titled Postcard for Political Prisoners was delivered to the Firstsite team. The idea of a postcard stems from my 2014 exhibition at the former Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary in San Francisco, where I made postcards that were each printed with an address of a political prisoner. Visitors could write on them and the postcards were subsequently mailed by the exhibition’s organisers to that jailed individual.

This time, for the design of the postcard I included a sketch from my 2015 work All Fingers Must Point Down on the reverse side. On the front is an image of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange’s treadmill, which was given to me in October 2016 as a present some months after I interviewed him in summer 2016 while he was seeking asylum at the Embassy of Ecuador in London, before he was detained by the British authorities in April 2019. I am a strong supporter of Assange because I firmly believe in the importance of investigative journalism in a civil society. As I felt that I did not have the chance to do justice to Assange’s story, the combination between my encounter with him and my ongoing interest in sending letters to political prisoners was crystallised into Postcard for Political Prisoners. It is a project which not only shows care to political prisoners, but it also encourages participants to reflect upon the relationship between the freedom that they enjoy and the price these fighters pay for that freedom.

As we submitted the work, we informed Firstsite that we were waiting for Amnesty International’s list of political prisoners who would be able and willing to receive mail from the public. Immediately afterwards, we received an enthusiastic WhatsApp message from Stuart Tulloch: “I’ll get back to you with any questions tomorrow. Thanks for all you’ve done to get this to us.”

On April 25, we informed Firstsite that Amnesty International would take longer, due to the fact that there are so many people in prison at the moment, they have less information on where people are held. We enquired with Firstsite about posting the details of my project on their platform.

No response.

We followed up again on May 13 and May 17.

No response.

On May 17, we asked Lisson director Hilty to follow up on our behalf. That’s how we finally received a response, on May 20, after Firstsite’s silence for 27 days. The response came from the director of Firstsite, Sally Shaw: “We have given the idea a great deal of consideration and unfortunately, we are unable to take it forward for two reasons. Sadly, due to the timing of when the idea came through from the studio, it has made it difficult for us to include it in The Great Big Art Exhibition. Also, the concept of the project is to encourage people across the nation to make artworks and display them in their windows. The sending of a postcard takes us away from this intention. I must assure you, sincerely, that this is in no way a reflection of our appreciation of the idea itself, which is remarkable and profound, and equally our esteem for Weiwei and his work.” [Shaw reiterated this to Artnet News when reached for comment, adding that “it was our greatest dream to work with Ai Weiwei. He is the most extra-ordinary artist for whom everyone at Firstsite has the deepest respect.”]

On of the site-specific installations by Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz Island. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

On of the site-specific installations by Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz Island. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Shaw’s response carries exactly the same tone as a rejection letter sent to job applicants. The only difference is the reversal of our roles because she was the one who courted my participation in the exhibition. What makes even less sense is the reasons that she gave for not having included my postcard: timing and art form. In fact, no deadline was ever given for my contribution, and, according to official information, the last theme, “Performance,” spanned from April 26 to May 9—my work could have fit nicely, thematically and temporally.

Now, for the second reason: In an exhibition where Anish Kapoor’s abstract painting could potentially encourage people to make artworks and Antony Gormley’s instructions could teach people how to make a dog figurine with a ball of clay, why wouldn’t my conceptual artwork Postcard for Political Prisoners inspire people to make artworks in the form of a postcard and engage in art-activism? What could stop participants from sending the postcard to themselves and pasting it on the window? Who is judging whether one artwork is more worthwhile for the purpose of “encouraging people across the nation to make artworks and display them in their windows” than another? What is the criteria? Whom has my postcard with Julian Assange’s treadmill offended?

The inherent self-contradiction in Shaw’s stated reasons, or rather, excuses demonstrated an inability to make her case—she seemed too afraid to give us a straight answer and too maladroit to round it off. I think the reason is related to Assange who has been incarcerated in HM Prison Belmarsh in London since his arrest on April 11, 2019, and that they don’t want to touch on a topic like Assange. Everyone is avoiding it—not just in the mainstream media, but in the circles of art and culture in general. By writing down the events that occurred, I hope to provoke everyone reading to think about the role that contemporary art plays in daily life.

Ai Weiwei poses with John Shipton, the father of Julian Assange, outside the Old Bailey court in central London on September 28, 2020, where the extradition hearing against Assange was taking place. Photo: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images.

Ai Weiwei poses with John Shipton, the father of Julian Assange, outside the Old Bailey court in central London on September 28, 2020, where the extradition hearing against Assange was taking place. Photo: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images.

In my opinion, contemporary art should be related to people’s lives and concerned with humanitarian ideas; art is, first and foremost, about human beings. What I do as an artist is always related to my personal experiences and the world around me—as such, my postcard design references my personal contact with Assange.

Everywhere in the contemporary world, art exhibitions enjoy flaunting famous artists’ work, while, at the same time, Western art has become completely cut off from society. “The Great Big Art Exhibition” used my name to promote the so-called “biggest exhibition” in the U.K. while also deciding against the core values of art, freedom of expression. What this incident unravels is the art world’s hypocrisy and corruption to reveal a world that considers art as a decoration and a sedative within our capitalist and consumerist society, a world where cultural activities concern culture alone and nothing more. Art has become a tool to numb ourselves so that we may avoid introspection. Any reflections through art are undesirable because they evoke pain and suffering and, if we delve into it, we would all be found guilty—and artists are guiltier than others because we have far more opportunities for free expression. 

My rejection also demonstrates that this art project, which involves more than 21 museums as well as other cultural venues based in this so-called democratic society, are quintessentially hypocritical. Let’s read “The Great Big Art Exhibition” slogans once again: “artworks can be made of anything at all” and “art and expression will be unleashed as never before across the U.K.” It is truly ironic to observe the corrupt practices of cultural circles in a place at the pinnacle of Western civilization, which advocates for and takes pride in its freedom of expression. In reality, freedom of expression is nothing more than empty talk and it has become a product that only serves the purpose of flattering the vanity of those who are powerful and wealthy—which is even worse.

I feel ashamed that nowadays all art does is whitewash. My artwork has once again proven how the art world is corrupt. So, I would like to thank Firstsite and the experience that they offered: Their rejection made Postcard for Political Prisoners a truly worthwhile project.

In response to this article, Sally Shaw, director of Firstsite, sent Artnet News the following comment: “It was our greatest dream to work with Ai Weiwei. He is the most extra-ordinary artist for whom everyone at Firstsite has the deepest respect. We gave his idea a great deal of consideration and unfortunately and very sadly we were unable to take it forward for two reasons. Due to the timing of when the idea came through from the studio, it has made it difficult for us to include it in The Great Big Art Exhibition. Also, the concept of the project is to encourage people across the nation to make artworks and display them in their windows. The sending of a postcard takes us away from this intention. I must assure you, sincerely, that this is in no way a reflection of our appreciation of the idea itself, which is remarkable and profound, and equally our esteem for Weiwei and his work.”


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