Table with Two Legs on the Wall
Map of China
|Making Everything: A Conversation with Ai Weiwei
by Carolee Thea
In 2007, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei brought 1,001
of his compatriots to Documenta for a city-wide
performance called Fairytale, and Template, a
39-foot-tall structure made of doors and windows
salvaged from houses destroyed during
China?s recent building boom, was a highlight
of Skulptur Projekte Münster?despite its collapse
in a violent storm at the beginning of
the show. In early 2008, Mary Boone Gallery
hosted ?Illumination,? Ai?s first major New York
exhibition, and a few months later, another of
his works, the Bird?s Nest stadium in Beijing
(created in collaboration with the Swiss architectural
firm Herzog & de Meuron), was broadcast
around the world during the Olympics.
The centerpiece of the New York show,
Descending Light, was an adaptation of Ai?s
iconic chandelier form. In this work, the form
appears to have buckled due to the violent
impact of a fall, its colossal structural rings
still festooned with strands of red crystals
illuminated from within. With its brilliant
red, emblematic of China, Descending Light
simultaneously conveys the toppling of
established order and the burning promise
of the future. The exhibition also included a
sculpture created from Qing dynasty stools.
Ai Weiwei was born in Beijing in 1957 and
educated at the Beijing Film Academy and
Parsons School of Design in New York. He
returned to China in 1993 to found the China
Art Archives and Warehouse in Beijing and
now heads a large art and architecture studio
under the name Fake Design.
Carolee Thea: The chandelier has been explored in painting
and sculpture since van Eyck. Your two enormous chandeliers,
Descending Light and Traveling Light, however, remind me of
nothing else in art history. Because of their materials and style,
they are more like the lighting fixtures sold in shops in New York
City?s Bowery district.
Ai Weiwei: Actually, it?s interesting that you mentioned that?I
lived in the East Village from 1983 to ?93, and every day I would
pass through the Bowery to Chinatown. I never thought I had
a direct connection to chandeliers. Still, I realize that they are
somehow in my head. From the barbershop or massage parlor
to people?s greeting halls, the last touch on a building is the
chandelier. It?s very funny, I don?t particularly like chandeliers?
they?re nothing more than a lighting instrument, but they do
reflect Western influence and glamour.
CT: Your father, Ai Qing, was China?s most revered modern poet.
A protégé of Mao, he was persecuted in the anti-rightist campaign
of the late ?50s and declared an enemy of the people during
the Cultural Revolution. As a child, you saw him as he was forced
to clean latrines in the icy remotes of Xinjiang province in the
AW: Yes, and in our desert exile, we had very little light, only a
small bottle of oil that we lit. We made big shadows on the wall.
CT: Where did you construct your first chandelier?
AW: The first one I did was in Guangzhou, China. It?s a big chandelier
in the middle of a scaffolding, and it refers to the scaffolding
you see everywhere in China. Where you see scaffolding, there
are the buildings where the last touch is the chandelier?a kind
of celebration. For Queensland Art Gallery in Australia, I did
another chandelier, Boomerang, suspended above the building?s
watermall like a fake fountain.
CT: And then there is the Liverpool piece.
AW: In Liverpool, I wanted to do a work on a pier surrounded by
residential and commercial space. I proposed a floating fountain
of light with layers of meaning. Liverpool is industrial and very rich,
and I thought about Tatlin and his utopian Monument to the Third
International. A crazy idea?I thought it could be interesting, and
I put a floating light and fountain in the middle of the water.
CT: The scaffoldings inside your chandeliers are magnificent?there
is a lot of attention to detail that intrigues me. I understand that
you designed the shape of the crystals in Traveling Light. Why?
AW: It was important to develop the language in a more complete,
more detailed way. The crystal has a mathematical basis for which
we needed precise measurements. It?s such a simple work, almost
minimal, and for me, the shape of the crystals became more
important than the work itself.
CT: Are you trained in physics, engineering, or architecture?
AW: I have training in almost nothing. I started my life as a child
who had to survive hardships and make everything. There was
nothing, just the earth and myself, and to make things was a
natural reaction for surviving.
CT: In your sculptures, you often reconfigure pieces of furniture,
antiques from the Qing and Ming Dynasties. What is this about?
AW: I try to give these things new meaning: what we think is valuable is only in our minds. Besides, ?antiques? is a standard
form that carries the value of tradition. It?s dealing with an understanding
of the past and its value in the present.
CT: At one time, you were writing brand names such as Coca-Cola
on antique pottery. Was this also about value?
AW: I lived in the U.S. for 12 years. Contemporary art was taboo
in China?no one did it because it was considered a Western corruption,
degenerate thinking. Anyway, that particular work is just
a joke?I wouldn?t even call it a work?but anyhow it all becomes
a work. I had a pot, and it needed something?it was black, sitting
next to an ashtray with a Coca-Cola sign that I brought back
from the U.S. And so, I just wrote on it with no meaning.
CT: What was your inspiration for architecture?
AW: In 1993, when I returned from the U.S., I went to live with my
mother. Because I returned without an American passport, a job,
a wife, or a university diploma, she was concerned that nothing
had changed, and so I left and built my own studio. When others
saw the studio, they said, ?This guy really can build, it really has
style.? But really, my style is no style. The way that I build is the
most efficient and economical. Of course, this is quite different
from what is trendy today?strange shapes, romantic moods. For
me, this may be fine in artworks but not in architecture. I never
learned to be an architect, and I only knew one architect?s name?
Frank Lloyd Wright, because he built the Guggenheim, which, at
the time, I didn?t like. Now I appreciate the structure; it is true
that every parking lot looks like that.
CT: You have a large studio, called Fake.
AW: Yes, my Fake studio is composed of a
team that I divide between my artworks
and my architectural projects. They?re all
students; we have no professionals, mostly
interns from the U.S., Germany, Switzerland,
the Netherlands. We are responsible
for everything, from concept to details.
CT: You?re living an amazing life as one of
the most famous sculptors and architects
to come out of China. How does your past
come into play in your thinking?
AW: It?s kind of crazy. When I grew up,
I always tried to hide my name because
I belonged to a disgraced family, but I
had a strong individual need and ideology.
Then, in 1980s New York, to become successful
was quite difficult for a young foreign
kid from China. Now, suddenly, I have
become well known, and I feel something
inside that I need to express. Constantly
I am questioning myself and my personal
CT: How did you become involved in the
Beijing National Stadium competition?
AW: The invitation for the stadium competition
was for Herzog & de Meuron.
It was their first time in China, so they
contacted a collector, the ex-ambassador from Switzerland, Uli Sigg, who introduced
CT: Were you surprised?
AW: Not very, because after we saw other people?s designs, I thought that China was
quite lucky to have us.
CT: I was in Beijing about a year and a half ago, and you could only see the stadium
through holes in a surrounding fence. Now, in photographs, I see a similarity to your
chandeliers in that it appears more like an infrastructure, innards or scaffolding.
AW: That was the idea, to show everything at once?to be transparent and have the
freedom to welcome people inside to experience it as opposed to decoration, or fake
shapes, colors, and materials. It?s bold, bare, and clear, with a strong understanding of
architecture. It is about 30 stories high and 300 meters across and holds just under
100,000 people?it?s a crazy structure. We used one-meter metal cubes. It?s like making
a serious sculpture with peanuts or sesame. The structure itself is the appearance, just
like a bird?s nest. That?s why people call it the Bird?s Nest. It?s not the shape?it?s really
the integration of the structural elements.
CT: Did the theme of China, then and now, influence your design?
AW: I didn?t have a clear inspiration. I?m not a sporty person and have never been to a
stadium in my life. The Olympics is not something I feel enthusiastic about, but the stadium,
this belongs to the people. The city needs it, even after the Olympic games.
CT: You must be very proud.
AW: No. I?m not. For me, it?s time to forget about it and do something else. Current
conditions, with political and social change, always affect my work. I know the past and
I?m living in the present, and it somehow directly or indirectly affects my work.
CT: I heard you speak at an Art Basel conference in Beijing in 2006, and I was very moved.
When asked about the idea of a contemporary museum in China, you said, ?Chinese
artists are not clear about what?s happening. It really is a question of soul. Nothing is
clear, and China needs a long period of time to recover its humanity.?
AW: Yes, but the sense of being just and
fair is essential for society and that?s what
I feel. It?s so elementary, but maybe it?s
because I lived in the U.S. for 12 years
and also in the Gobi Desert.
CT: I think the past always haunts us. There
are two Chinese artists who migrated to
Paris whose works I?ve always loved?
Chen Zhen and Huang Yong Ping?their
works are on the same scale as yours.
AW: They?re my same age and the same
generation of artist. They grew up with the
attitude of Chairman Mao?s idea of changing
the world, of destroying the old and
rebuilding a new world. To rebuild the new
world, you had to destroy the old?it?s the
simple logic that we had. So maybe it was
a kind of sensibility. People always say my
works are large, but to me they are not
large. It?s only because we are very small.
CT: What do you think of the position that
Chinese artists hold in the art world today?
AW: There are good artists, just like artists
everywhere, but there is a lot of hype, also
just like everywhere. If there were no Chinese
artists, there would still be so-called
good art and bad art. China has a long tradition
of art-making and very rich traditions.
But it doesn?t mean anything. Today,
China is a land with chaotic conditions, a
mixed ideology, mixed conditions, a lot of
arguments, a lot of awareness.
CT: Isn?t it still a very closed society?
AW: It was like that, but today, under globalization
and in this information age, it
forces itself to be in another condition. It?s
a good time for artists to have much larger
discussions. In reality, there is not a lot of
discussion. The Communist Party never
bore the responsibility, and they ruined the
nation in every aspect. Now the people
associated with the party are getting very
rich. One day they stripped all of the stateowned
property and became tyrants of
energy and transportation and everything.
They are multi-billionaires, bigger than the
Western world thinks, and that?s the reality.