Interview: Ai Weiwei

We talk to Ai Weiwei as his first China solo show opens

Image: Gao Yuan

For an artist with a seemingly endless string of exhibitions around the globe, the irony is that Ai Weiwei has never had a solo show in the country of his birth. That is, not until now.

Over the years, domestic galleries have shown pieces made by the controversial artist that have already been exhibited elsewhere – never before a new work. On June 6, Galleria Continua and Tang Contemporary Art Center debut Ai Weiwei, a site-specific installation for which Ai has painstakingly sourced a traditional Anhui-style structure – originally from Wuyuan, Jiangxi, later moved to Zhejiang where he uncovered it – and then rebuilt it to straddle the two galleries here in Beijing.

On intention

‘This really started in 1996 when my father passed away. I was invited to see his hometown. That was the first time I’d seen it. I grew up in Xinjiang in northern China, which has nothing to do with this type of [Southern] culture. [His father, Ai Qing, was a revered poet, who was denounced and then exiled during the Anti-Rightist movement]. Then I went to New York; all we saw was skyscrapers over there. After I came back, I paid so much attention to antiquity and [ancient] philosophies. I started relating to China as a state of mind.’

‘But I don’t want to fall into the trap, this kind of protection of the old culture or old materials. It is not my interest at all. I don’t worship these kinds of things. I don’t think they have some profound beauty except the idea, the concept behind it, which is pretty overwhelming – but not the material itself. I don’t think material has any meaning except its profound impression and the ideas behind it.

So, to be creative and use that [old culture], but at the same time not too much of it, I’d have to find two galleries and just show half of [the work] in each. That is the way to completely destroy the original feeling, because totality is the core idea of the Chinese culture. Chinese society and politics still cannot be at ease with that idea – which helps China, and stops China, in developing. My idea is to have a show, have a material, a physical metaphor to represent my current condition – and the time being of our time, our state of mind.’

On the foundations

‘By 2000, I’d built my first studio in Caochangdi, and afterwards I became an architect. […] I started to pay attention to old architecture in the south. My father is from Zhejiang and in his hometown, in Jinhua, there are many, many old buildings, the earliest of which come from the Yuan Dynasty. Yuan, Ming, Qing: 600-700 years old.

I really had a clear Chinese aesthetic or philosophy relating to every object I was making [at the time]. From the village, to the buildings, to a piece of furniture, it all came from the same background, the same language. That is extremely fascinating to me, to see a society designed from all aspects as one, including human behaviour – the way to sit or to relate to other people in the family or outside the family. All that behaviour, moral judgements and aesthetics come from one.’

‘Late last year, I was invited by Galleria Continua to have a show in their space [and then, subsequently, at Tang Contemporary Arts Center next to Continua]. So I had the idea that I could use my knowledge about architecture, construction and Chinese antiquity, and my understanding in the contemporary field to come up with a piece that would be new, designed for the moment and that I made myself for the exhibition.’

‘We searched all of the [old] buildings in Zhejiang, Jiangxi and Anhui. These areas have buildings called huipai jianzhu (徽派建筑), which means ‘architecture in Anhui style’.

We found one piece of architecture that is from the late Ming Dynasty and belongs not to a temple, but rather a place for one big family in a village to worship their ancestors. It’s called a shitang (食堂). These types of building served in China as a church would in Italy. It was a community centre; everything was decided there.’

‘Those [buildings] were really a microcosm of the society in China – all the ritual and the understanding of society, all the politics and social discussions, family affairs or relations interrelating to other families, other villages. It functioned as a very important unit in the sense of community – where you come from, what you get, what you have to defend… for your honour and your family protection.

'But, after ’49 all those things were destroyed. The idea of communism has flattened the whole of society into one entire flat area. There’s only one authority, in the name of a nation, which has created a very different type of social typology – and that kind of social typology has never happened in history. You always have some kind of hierarchy, some kind of group, some kind of unit.

'But in this new society every individual was disassociated from everybody else – even in families, even from your parents, brothers and sisters.’

On the process

‘I bought this building [featured in the current show], which is very unique in the marketplace. We saw a hundred buildings [in the south], but none of them were so old or had such a large structure. The earlier ones are about structure, about the very essential element of what this type of building is about.’

‘It took two months to take [the building] apart and do the study, count the pieces, make the record and make sure every piece in the record was marked and could be put back in place later. There were over 1,500 pieces. And then we had to package it and ship it to Beijing, which took five to six large trucks.’

‘The construction has been done by five teams. The galleries, which are the owners of the space, are one. Tang Contemporary Art Center has been destroyed by our structure. The whole office moved out and we broke the ground and ceilings and the walls to make sure the old architecture could go through the structure in there.’

‘And the other team is our team – the design team. I’m one of the designers, and we have at least 10 people working on it. Another is the classic architecture team, which has a long history in the structure of old buildings. And then, the other two teams: one is the on-location builders, the carpenters. Their job is to professionally destroy the bricks and build up at a very fast speed. The last team is the shipping company. You take a special company to package it, to find the special equipment to move to 798, to have a lift to take it into the building. Even during the construction, all the equipment has to be there.’

‘The actual building is structured between two galleries. That means in each gallery, we only have a half show. You’re not going to see the total product at once, but you can see it with the imagination of the other space or you can see it with memory of the other space. So I created a neither-nor condition, which is what I enjoyed I think.

'Finally, I still can say I’ve never had a show of one work in one gallery in Beijing [laughs].’

On the occasion of his first solo show in China

‘I don’t feel anything unique about it, because I always say my life is a show. So we artists have to wrap it together, otherwise my work has no meaning. It’s just a bunch of materials that the wind will blow away. You know – Beijing has a strong wind.’

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