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Chinese censors say Ai Weiwei crossed over a ‘Redline’

Ai Weiwei, shown in Vienna with one of his projects, plans to finish the “Redline” piece.

Hans Klaus Techt/AFP/Getty Images

Ai Weiwei, shown in Vienna with one of his projects, plans to finish the “Redline” piece.

BEIJING — For Ai Weiwei, the outspoken Chinese artist, the idea was irresistible.

Ai had become obsessed with a red scribble that appeared on a planning document for an art show next month in Yinchuan, a city in northwest China. He decided to build a large sculpture modeled on the line that he would call “Redline” — a playful rumination on the idea of censorship.

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But this week, the artistic director of the Yinchuan Museum of Contemporary Art, Suchen Hsieh, sent Ai a message:

“Bose [Krishnamachari, Indian artist and curator of the biennale] and I invited you to participate in this year’s Yinchuan Biennale because we sincerely admire your artwork. But things change in this world. Even though your project is full of philosophical awareness, an artist’s prestige overshadows his work. The autumn wind is blowing around us. The museum has no choice but to rescind its invitation to you. It’s very unfortunate that the conditions don’t allow us to display your artwork.”

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Ai, who provided a copy of the message, was taken aback. “It was a very strange note,” he said in a phone interview from Berlin, where he lives.

In response, he posted a 173-word critique on Instagram, denouncing efforts to limit free expression. “Art is used merely as a decoration for political agendas in certain societies,” he wrote. He also posted on Twitter.

Krishnamachari, the curator, said Friday that he was startled by the authorities’ decision and that he hoped the officials would change their minds.

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“I strongly believe artists should have the freedom to do whatever they feel like, otherwise you can’t call it art,” he said.

The New York-based group organizing the exhibit, Biennial Foundation, confirmed that Ai’s invitation had been rescinded because of government pressure.

Rafal Niemojewski, the foundation’s director, said that curators often run into problems of censorship.

“When governments or private sponsors invest millions in an event, they also frequently assert a decision-making prerogative, and curators rarely get the final say,” he wrote.

Officials in Yinchuan did not respond to requests for comment, and the Yinchuan Museum of Contemporary Art declined to make its leaders available for interviews.

Ai, who turns 59 on Sunday, is a rock-star dissident who is known for stirring controversy. His criticism of the Chinese government’s restrictions on free speech and human rights has angered Beijing. He was detained for nearly three months in 2011 and barred from traveling abroad until authorities returned his passport last year.

Ai now works from a studio in Berlin, though he continues to travel to China.

The Yinchuan Biennale, which opens Sept. 9 and runs to Dec. 18, will feature the work of more than 70 artists from 33 countries.

Ai said he was inspired to create “Redline” after he saw a photo of the exterior of the Yinchuan museum. The show’s organizers drew a red line on the photo to mark the area where Ai could place his art.

Ai said he still planned to finish the sculpture, even if it would not be displayed in Yinchuan.

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