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Interview

July 25, 2007

Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei is one of the most prominent figures in Chinese contemporary art and culture. The son of legendary poet Ai Qing, the younger Ai was a founding member of the avant-garde Stars groups in the late '70s. After living and working in New York from 1981 to1993, he returned to China and helped establish the famous Beijing East Village. Artkrush contributor Samantha Culp interviews Ai about his groundbreaking work at documenta 12, including the Fairytale project, for which he brought 1,001 Chinese citizens to Kassel — home of the Brothers Grimm.

AK:  How did the idea for Fairytale come about, and how did you find 1,001 people in China willing to participate in a project in Germany?

AW:  I grew up in Xinjiang within a hardcore communist society — we got all our education in labor camps. Today, it's a very different time; the development of political, economic, and technical systems has brought us to a completely new age.

At the same time, I think the old systems and power structures, based on the old thinking, are still here — especially in China, but also in the West. I believe that personal awareness and experience is absolutely essential for social change; that change should be based on an individual confrontation with reality.

When documenta asked me to do a project, I really wanted to do this exercise, Fairytale, of bringing 1,001 people to the event as a kind of disruptive intervention. It wasn't a specific commentary on documenta — any other show or fair still operates within the old framework of thought. This way of presenting [art], the kind of communication, who's doing what, how it's received — it's all based on the old structure. My project draws from personal effort and results in an individual engagement, no matter who the viewer is — somebody who's art-savvy or somebody who doesn't know art at all, but is just willing to have contact with this experience.

I recruited participants on my personal blog. The whole process went so well on the Internet; we couldn't have done it otherwise. People really had a sense of trust in this new channel of expression, which was very encouraging. I didn't know them, they didn't know me, but we could still communicate well. Still, it was more or less intangible until the time when everyone actually got on the bus. I was very touched and impressed to finally see everyone as a real person.

AK:  What were some of the biggest challenges of bringing such a large group to Kassel?

AW:  It's still a miracle to me that this happened without any big complications or tragedies. When I gave my concept to my gallerist, Urs Meile, he didn't hesitate. He knew the budget it would need, but immediately thought it was a good idea. A week later, he already had the contract — I didn't even read it, because I have complete trust in him. [Two private Swiss foundations helped fund the project.]

For the participants, everyone had to get a passport, which isn't easy in China — you need to return to your home province just to apply. But people just did it. Nobody in those 1,001 ever mentioned it to me, but I know it was difficult in terms of money and time.

We designed a dormitory in Kassel for them so that they could eat well, sleep well, and have a good, relaxing time. On one hand, they retain a sense of security and a sense of identity, but they're also cut off from their original sociocultural structure. We did everything possible to find the right location, to design the interior and the installation structure to create symbolic surroundings for their mental condition. We even brought cooks who made homestyle Chinese dishes three times a day.

They came in five groups of 200 each — the maximum that the dormitory could hold and that the airline could accommodate.

AK:  In the end, how do you think the participants felt about the whole experience?

AW:  They came from all over China. I don't think anyone from Taiwan or Tibet applied, but the rest — 20 provinces — are all represented. They have all kinds of backgrounds: government people, policemen, people without jobs, workers, farmers, gardeners, fishermen. Almost none of them have been outside China before, and nobody speaks German.

They came excited, and they left... well, some are sorry they couldn't stay a bit longer. It's like a dream; they said it's affected their lives and the way they look at the world. Maybe that's just sentimental poetics, but anyhow, I really think a new awareness has been added to their lives.

AK:  You also created physical works as a part of Fairytale — a massive construction of doors, salvaged from Ming- and Qing-dynasty houses and an installation of 1,001 chairs, from the same historical periods. During a storm in Kassel, the open-air door construction collapsed, and you decided to leave it as is.

AW:  I think that an exhibition is just a moment in the whole process. Of course, some artists might want to make a permanent, unique, perfect condition [of their work], but I never think that way.

The structural work involved 1,000 pieces of doors and windows, and it took 20 people 20 days to put it up. After six days of exhibition, a storm destroyed it — it wasn't completely broken, but it was heavily damaged. They're old windows from the ruins of China, and they quickly became ruins again. For me, that's OK. The weight hasn't changed, just the shape. If I "correct" it, I'm saying that this shape isn't as "good" as the one before.

The chairs for Fairytale were put in and moved around the exhibition halls, one for each participant. People loved it. It gives the exhibition a very special feeling, because the 1,001 chairs have been everywhere. And [laughing], when you look at contemporary art today, you need a place to sit.

AK:  These sculptures, as well as much of your previous work and interest in architecture, seem to blur the lines between "art" and "design." How do you feel that the two overlap? Is there any meaningful line between them?

AW:  That's always the question… how or when it becomes art, why is this real, what's fake, and what's the value related to it. If I design, I change a condition that can either be art or a chair. With these chairs, I didn't change anything. The chairs show the status of the owner — people have a hierarchy everywhere. Traveling to Kassel, they've totally lost their design context, but I didn't do anything but add the title to the bottom of the chair. Like Fairytale itself, it uses the concept of design as a readymade to question and challenge these categories.

AK:  What interests you about architecture?

AW:  I think it's everywhere. Architecture to me is more or less a gesture. It relates to the situation today of what is necessary and unnecessary, what to control and not to control. It's the same kind of exercise as art, but under very different conditions. It's much more political because you have to deal with state policy, development, labor, and production, and then it always becomes a social activity because it's public.

AK:  Particularly in designing art spaces, such as the new gallery spaces, artists' studios, and cultural center in Caochangdi, outside Beijing, how do you deal with the constraints of the "white cube"?

AW:  In an art space, you design for no particular user, and you try to find a maximum usage for the space and its possible uses. The spatial conditions must be right, as well as the lighting. It should have an identity; at the same time, the identity should fit into the landscape.

AK:  What do you think about the current state of Chinese art and the influence of the market on it?

AW:  All of these bubbles are made by people, and people understand them. There are always bubbles. They affect the quality of work and the attention given, but I don't think it will last, and I don't think the good work will be affected.

AK:  What projects do you currently have in progress?

AW:  I have to prepare several shows — a lot of deadlines to meet. I'm doing a large documentary film [about Fairytale], which currently consists of 1,500 hours of footage. The final film will be over six or eight hours, and there are about 20 directors working on it. It follows the participants before their trip — what's on their minds, what their lives are like. I want to show it to the general public. It may be the largest single documentary ever made.

AK:  Are you considering moving more into filmmaking?

AW:  That's what I'm thinking; I'm a little bit tired of producing objects. Film is still attractive to me because I know very little about it. I like all kinds of films. I think that films are a kind of fantasy where we try to make another reality. We can be charmed. It's magical.

Ai Weiwei's Fairytale can be seen at documenta 12 in Kassel, Germany, until September 23. His work is also on view in the group shows China Welcomes You… Desires, Struggles, New Identities at Kunsthaus Graz in Graz, Austria until September 2, and Metamorphosis: The Generation of Transformation in Chinese Contemporary Art at the Tampere Art Museum in Tampere, Finland, through September 30.

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