Tel Aviv Museum Nixes Ai Weiwei Exhibit; Israeli Artist Says Censorship at Play

The exhibit by the Chinese artist and dissident, which was also expected to show portraits of Palestinians by Israeli photographer Miki Kratsman, was delayed repeatedly until being nixed.

Shany Littman
Shany Littman
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Chinese artist Ai Weiwei poses for photographers with one of his pieces at his exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.
Chinese artist Ai Weiwei poses for photographers with one of his pieces at his exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.Credit: AP
Shany Littman
Shany Littman

When Nira Itzhaki of Tel Aviv’s Chelouche Art Gallery met Israeli art collector Doron Sabag at the Art Basel Miami Beach event in early December, she was sure they’d have much to talk about. After all, an artist she represents, photographer Miki Kratsman, was about to have a show at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, where Sabag is a member of the board and the exhibition committee, and thought to carry a lot of influence. The exhibition was supposed to be an extra-special event, because Kratsman was bringing along a very serious companion – the world-famous Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, an international superstar, who was going to exhibit a project of his right alongside Kratsman’s.

Nowadays, a good number of international artists and art institutions are boycotting Israel and its cultural products in protest over the occupation and Israel’s perceived apartheid policy. But Ai Weiwei, a political artist and known regime opponent who spent time in a Chinese prison, wanted to exhibit his work in Israel.

Ai planned to exhibit at a Tel Aviv Museum project related to refugee camps around the world. Kratsman was going to present 3,000 portraits of Palestinians he happened to meet and whose fate he wondered about, a project he began after winning the Robert Gardner Fellowship from Harvard University’s Peabody Museum in 2011. The $50,000 fellowship covered the cost of his work that will be published as a book by the university. The remainder of the cost of the exhibition – unofficially budgeted at NIS 400,000 (some $100,000) – was supposed to be covered by the Tel Aviv Museum.

But in talking with Sabag in Miami, Itzhaki learned a few surprising things, indicating that the joint project by Ai and Kratsman was creating a lot of anxiety for the museum. Sabag told Itzhaki that Suzanne Landau, the museum’s director and chief curator, had wanted to consult with him about the joint exhibition.

“He told me he didn’t see how the museum could present Kratsman’s work given the current political climate,” she says. “And that he didn’t think the museum could withstand the assault that it would incur if the project was presented. I told him I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, and he said ‘Yes, this is the situation today.’ He also said that he thinks Miki should tone it down a little, and I was really surprised to hear that. I told Miki that ‘according to what Doron told me, there won’t be an exhibition, and I think he’s speaking on behalf of the museum and not just himself.’”

Nira Itzhaki.Credit: Courtesy

Sabag confirmed that he had a conversation with Itzhaki in Miami, but insists that he was only speaking for himself and that what he said does not represent the museum’s position. The decision to cancel or go ahead with the exhibition was solely up to Landau, he says, and she did not consult with him about it.

“It didn’t even reach the exhibition committee,” says Sabag. “I mainly heard about it from Nira Itzhaki. Anyway, the only person who can give an answer is Suzanne Landau. She’s the one who decides.”

Hearing about that meeting in Miami helped Kratsman understand the uneasiness he’d felt in his prior dealings with the museum about the exhibition, which he hadn’t been able to explain. Ai and Kratsman first connected six years ago, when Kratsman (who also worked for Haaretz) met Ai at an exhibition of his in Seoul. Kratsman says that after he hung his pieces, he was informed that someone wanted to meet him on the bottom floor of the museum. He was astounded to find Ai Weiwei waiting for him there, and to hear him gush with praise for his series of photographs entitled “Targeted Killing” on display there.

Kratsman and Ai exchanged business cards and the Chinese artist said: “Call me, maybe we’ll do something together someday.” Three years after that thrilling encounter, Kratsman and Itzhaki contacted Ai, who immediately agreed to put on a joint exhibition with Kratsman in Israel.

Kratsman and Itzhaki then approached the Tel Aviv Museum, which seemed like the most appropriate setting for an exhibition of this kind, and the idea was enthusiastically received by Landau and Nili Goren, director of the museum’s photography department, who began to curate the joint exhibition.

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei (R) helps an Afghan migrant as he arrives with other refugees and migrants on a raft on the Greek island of Lesbos, January 25, 2016.Credit: Reuters

The initial opening date was set for March 2015. The museum subsequently sought to postpone it to October 2015. Ai agreed to the rescheduling. But then, in September 2015, Goren emailed Ai’s office asking to postpone the exhibition until mid-2016, citing budgetary problems and scheduling conflicts with other exhibitions.

By July 2015, no final date had yet been set for the exhibition, and Ai’s people had not been informed what the budget would be. In August 2015, Goren informed Ai that, regrettably, the museum had to delay the exhibition yet again, due to scheduling issues, and the proposed date was now November 2016. Ai’s studio responded that “Due to frequent changes in the dates for the exhibition, Ai Weiwei will not be able to participate in it.”

Having watched the project evaporate, Kratsman wrote Ai a letter apologizing for “the museum’s embarrassing and disrespectful behavior,” and said that he felt guilty and hoped it wasn’t part of an attempt to censor his works.

Ai wrote back that he was sorry for the unpleasantness caused to Kratsman, and that he had canceled his participation due to the museum’s “apparent inability” to proceed. But he also assured Kratsman that he would honor his decision if he still chose to go ahead with the project, as long as the museum would prove the seriousness of its intentions.

Unexplained behavior

Some of Miki Kratsman's portraits of Palestinians. Credit: Miki Kratsman

Kratsman says that something seemed off from the early stages of working on the exhibit: “Everything was moving very, very slowly. It was weird. I submitted my proposal, Ai submitted several proposals, and then a negotiation started over his proposals. They wanted him to do something special for the exhibition, and this was when he was still prohibited from leaving China. After a while, I saw that the whole thing was disintegrating and not moving in a good direction, so I wrote a fairly angry email to Ai and told him that I don’t know what’s going on here, but I’m afraid that due to the public atmosphere here, we’re being censored. I sent a copy to Suzanne and Nili and we met. They were furious over my accusation of censorship. I told them ‘Fine, if I’m mistaken, I will send an email apologizing. But I want to know what the situation is. There’s no explanation for the way you’ve been behaving.’”

A few more months passed, and the museum still hadn’t sent Ai an agreement detailing the budget for the exhibition and its exact dates. Meanwhile, Goren had to step down from the project due to health reasons and was replaced by Raz Samira. On December 15, 2015, Samira sent an email to Ai’s studio, asking to quickly receive the specifications for the project he planned to present at the museum in November 2016, so she could present it to the exhibits committee that was due to convene the following week, on December 21. Ai’s representative replied that the November 2016 date was not suitable, as previously stated.

On December 31, Landau sent an email to Kratsman and Ai that effectively put an end to the exhibition. She expressed regret that “changes in the dates led to [dates] that are not suitable for you. I hope very much that we will be able to work together in the very near future.”

While an advanced level of contacts between the artists and the museum management took place regarding the exhibition, the matter of the exhibition was never brought up before the museum’s exhibition committee, which is supposed to approve plans for exhibits. Members of the committee said they were unaware that such an exhibition was to be held at the museum. Aside from Landau, the committee is comprised of three senior curators at the museum, several outside representatives and Sabag.

Kratsman is convinced that it was self-censorship on the part of the museum that led to the exhibition’s cancellation. “Even if it was ostensibly cancelled due to scheduling problems, it’s shocking that the Tel Aviv Museum would behave this way with an artist of this stature,” he says. “I really don’t care if I have an exhibit at the Tel Aviv Museum or not, but it worries me that there’s a policy here of being okay with the political establishment, and this is the current mood. I’m not judging Suzanne Landau. The museum has to contend with political pressures. But there’s a situation here that needs to be talked about.”

Ai Weiwei and Miki Kratsman at the Chelouche Art Gallery.Credit: Nira Itzhaki

How did Ai react to everything that happened, after he was willing to show his work here?

“It really surprised me that he was willing to have a show here, but he was with us all along. After the election here, he asked me if it was wise to do an exhibition in a country with such a political reality. And I told him that if I’m presenting my material, then apparently it’s possible. When he heard what happened he wrote me that, apparently, in this situation it’s not possible to do our show.”

You focus intensively on the occupation. This probably isn’t the first time there’s been an attempt to censor you.

“That’s never happened to me. I even received the EMET Prize from Netanyahu and shook his hand. But that was a different time. The public mood wasn’t like it is now. Now we’re dealing with McCarthyism. If this is the reality, people need to know it. If people think that art should be censored and there’s discussion about it, then let them censor. But people need to know it. Right now, the people who are applying the censorship don’t even know that this is what they’re doing. Suzanne isn’t aware that this is what she’s doing.”

Suzanne Landau did not respond to numerous attempts to contact her directly.

The Tel Aviv Museum responded: “More than 30 different exhibitions are held at the museum each year. The exhibition by Ai Weiwei and Miki Kratsman was planned for November 2016. In the midst of the work on the exhibition, curator Nili Goren became ill and Raz Samira was selected to replace her. When Raz contacted Miki Kratsman and the artist’s studio, the museum learned that Ai could not participate in the exhibition at that time. The exhibition schedule for 2017 is already full. The museum is making every effort to find a suitable time and hall, but has not yet been able to do so. When a solution is found, the proposal for the exhibition will be submitted to the relevant bodies for approval, as is done with every exhibition, and once the exhibition is approved, its budget will be set. The Tel Aviv Museum of Art makes its determinations regarding artists and exhibitions purely on artistic considerations.”

Told of the museum’s response, Kratsman says, “In the letter sent by Suzanne Landau on December 15, 2015, there was no mention of any attempt to still hold the exhibition or to find a new date for it.”

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