Ai Weiwei supporters rally at new shows in London

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Artists and supporters of detained Chinese artist Ai Weiwei solemnly read out quotes from him on Wednesday ahead of the opening of two exhibitions of his work in London this week.

Lined up around 12 giant animal heads standing in the courtyard of Somerset House, they called for the Chinese government to free the man who has not been heard of since he was arrested at Beijing airport a month ago.

"Chinese government, release Ai Weiwei," shouted Patrick Brill, a British contemporary artist who works under the pseudonym Bob and Roberta Smith.

Gwyn Miles, the director of Somerset House Trust, told journalists the exhibition entitled "Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads" was planned two years ago, "but doing it now shows support to Ai Weiwei".

"Like everyone who admires and respects the work of Ai Weiwei we are very upset by the news that he has been detained by the Chinese authorities," Miles said.

But she admitted that as a wave of international protests at his detention had failed to secure his release, "it is difficult to see what is going to have an impact".

The exhibition of 12 bronze heads on bronze poles, each weighing 360 kilogrammes (800 pounds), are enlarged re-creations of the traditional Chinese zodiac sculptures which once adorned the fountain clock of Yuanming Yuan, an 18th century imperial retreat outside Beijing.

In 1860, the site was ransacked by French and British troops, and the heads were pillaged. Just seven have been recovered -- the whereabouts of the other five remain a mystery.

In a statement accompanying the exhibition, Ai Weiwei says the work tapped into the issues of looting and repatriation, as well as returning to a long-running feature of his work -- perceptions of fake and copy.

The organiser of the readings, writer and broadcaster Ekow Eshun, said it was crucial to keep Ai Weiwei in the eye of the world's media.

"Everyone in the Western world is united to have his release. The most important thing is to show his work and to keep asking the question: 'Where is Ai Weiwei?'"

"All you can do is keep his art alive and in the public eye."

In another show opening in London on Thursday, the Lisson Gallery dedicates both its galleries to more works by the artist.

Ancient Chinese vases splashed in garish synthetic colours are meant to be a commentary on the way traditional values are corrupted by commercialism.

And a security camera sculpted from marble is the artist's view of the surveillance society of which he has fallen foul.

China said last week that other countries should stop commenting on Ai Weiwei's detention.

© 2011 AFP

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