1 of 4 | Ai Weiwei, 53, one of China's most prominent avant-garde artists and human rights activists, poses for a portrait in his Beijing studio on April 25, 2009. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged China to free dozens of government critics rounded up this year including Ai Weiwei and said Beijing's human rights record was worsening. UPI/Stephen Shaver | License Photo
BERLIN, May 13 (UPI) -- There's still no sign of Chinese artist and regime critic Ai Weiwei, 39 days after his arrest by Chinese police, with the West unable to convince Beijing into releasing him.
Like kraken trying to reach beyond the water surface, the branches of the two gray-brown trees stretch toward the glass ceiling of the light-flooded room in the Neugerriemschneider gallery in Berlin's Mitte district.
Ai's "Tree 2011" sculpture, which combines traditional Chinese woodwork with modern artistic storytelling, was meant to be unveiled April 29 by the artist. Ai never made it to the opening, however. Outside the red-brick gallery building hangs a large banner with the words "Where is Ai Weiwei" printed on it in bold black letters.
On April 3, Ai was arrested at Beijing Airport while boarding a plane to Hong Kong. Shortly afterward, police raided his studio in Beijing, confiscating computers and detaining his wife, Lu Qing, as well as several of his aides.
While Lu and the aides have since been released, Ai, 53, has disappeared. Chinese authorities haven't revealed where he's being held. He hasn't had access to a lawyer or his family.
Ever since the pro-democracy revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East, the Chinese government has been "highly nervous," said Eberhard Sandschneider, a China expert with the German Council on Foreign Relations, a Berlin think tank.
"They've seen what a small spark of unrest did in Tunisia and they're eager to put out those sparks before they turn into a fire," he told United Press International in a telephone interview Friday.
Beijing has launched a massive crackdown, harassing, arresting and, according to some reports, torturing regime critics, among them writers, lawyers and artists. While Ai isn't the only one locked up, he's among the most prominent of Chinese cultural figures.
Famous for his help in designing the so-called Bird's Nest, the main stadium used in the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, Ai has developed into the best-selling living Chinese artist. His latest large-scale exhibition was at the Tate Modern gallery in London, where his millions of tiny porcelain objects that look like sunflower seeds became an instant hit.
Besides creating works of art, Ai has been an outspoken critic of the Beijing regime. He drew attention to victims of the 2008 earthquake in China and has shown solidarity with detained colleagues such as Nobel Peace Prize-winning writer Liu Xiaobo. Via Twitter, where he has more than 83,000 followers, Ai often attacked the regime for its crackdown on human rights.
Immediately after his arrest, Western governments, including the United States, Britain, France and Germany, urged China to release Ai but to no avail. Beijing brushed aside Western criticism and claim Ai is being investigated for economic crimes.
The international culture scene has launched various campaigns to raise awareness of the case. The German Academy of Arts has appointed Ai as a member, writer Salman Rushdie has written open letters to the press and British Indian-born artist Anish Kapoor this week dedicated his biggest-ever sculpture, on display in Paris, to Ai.
One Facebook campaign has brought together artists from all over Europe who support Ai by holding up signs with the words "Where is Ai Weiwei?"
The campaign organized a sit-in in front of Chinese embassies across Europe and urges people to flood Chinese embassies with phone calls regarding the artist's fate.
One German writer has called on the United States to free Ai with a commando operation similar to the one that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden.
Politically, however, efforts seem to have calmed down. Critics say Ai's case has dropped below the radar in Europe as the debt crisis continues and the military mission in Libya pushes on.
China's economic influence, critics add, often weighs heavier in diplomatic relations than her human rights abuses.
Ai is especially popular in Germany, a country that fosters strong economic ties with China. In March, Ai announced plans to open a second studio in Berlin, saying working in China became increasingly unbearable.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle has called for Ai's release and, in a sign of solidarity, last month visited the opening ceremony of his exhibition at the Neugerriemschneider gallery.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert on Friday vowed that Germany hasn't forgotten Ai.
"We won't stop mentioning his case with our Chinese counterparts," Seibert told his regular news conference, adding that Ai's ongoing disappearance was "very regrettable and worrisome."
"It's obvious that a great injustice has been done," he said. "One doesn't even want to imagine how terrible this must be for his family."
Sandschneider said public Western pleas won't get Ai released.
The effect that Western pressure over China's human rights record has on the Chinese leadership "is absolutely zero," Sandschneider said. "You can only help Ai Weiwei by talking to Chinese diplomats behind the scenes."
But more likely, the artist will remain in a prison cell until he's put on a show trial and sentenced, Sandschneider added.
Ai reportedly knew what was coming. He has been placed under house arrest several times, with his every move recorded by Chinese security services, which installed cameras outside his studio.
In his typical way of dealing with the crackdown, Ai produced a marble sculpture of one of the cameras.
"What can they do to me?" The Guardian quotes from a November 2009 entry on Ai's blog. "Nothing more than to banish, kidnap or imprison me. Perhaps they could fabricate my disappearance into thin air but they don't have any creativity or imagination and they lack both joy and the ability to fly."
The regime might one day get to him, he wrote, but one thing it couldn't do -- "prevent the historical process by which society demands freedom and democracy."