TEMPLATE-1, 001 Ming and Qing dynasty wooden window frames and doors
Installation view, Documenta 12
Courtesy and copyright of the artist
‘Ai Weiwei’s artistic output, based on the formulation of ideas, is interwoven with his political thinking and illuminates for the audience the internal struggles China currently faces, as well as deep human concerns.’- Gene Sherman, Chairman, Executive Director of the SCAF
Ai Weiwei is one of the most innovative artists of the contemporary art scene. Widely regarded as an agent provocateur, Ai chooses art as a means through which to express his disdain for the political pressures of a system condemning society to cultural improvement in China. His work outrages conservative traditionalists as he questions the role of culture and its historical and ideological nature (Alnertini, 2008). Until he discovered the works of Marcel Duchamp, he had no idea that art could be a lifestyle, which brought an instant end to the struggle with the form of painting. Ai decided that painting was “a dead-end form of expression” and devoted his energies to create sculptural assemblage, which he constructed using objects appropriated from daily life (Smith, 2007). In recent years much has been made of the apparent tendency towards the neo-Dadaist gesture in Ai’s approach.
In thinking through the conceptual potentiality of the ‘Readymade,’ underpinned by the nation that art practice is but the administration of things, Ai Weiwei expands the concept to such a degree that he reinvents it. Fairytale, specifically made for the art event Documenta 12 2007, could best be explained as a type of performance or happening. It was conceived as three interlocking projects that extend the critical engagement with concept of China not only in its conception of China as a physical construct but as a constructed identity, in which reply to the three leitmotifs of the exhibition, ‘Is modernity our antiquity’, ‘What is bare life?’ and ‘What is to be done?’ he displayed a characteristic desire to work outside conventional art forms and create a work with ordinary people at its heart (Close, 2008).
Ai cheerfully showed his guests a quotation by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the pioneering Russian space theorist, printed on one of the first pages of the introduction for the project:
First inevitably comes the idea, the fantasy, the fairy tale. Then scientific calculation. Ultimately, fulfillment crowns the dream (Ammer, 2007).
These words condensed the whole process, conceived as an artwork itself, of the large- scale, multi-faceted project about ‘possibility and imagination.’
Project 1-1,001 Chinese visitors
The first project was the invitation of 1,001 Chinese travelling to Kassel free of any costs (Appendix 1). It involved exploring what it means to be Chinese beyond the physical limits of place. Most of these participants were selected because they would never have otherwise had the opportunity to travel overseas and were chosen in a relatively random manner as an open invitation published on Ai’s blog.
In terms of size and concept, Fairytale is the biggest and the most multilayered work ever developed by Ai, and one of the most ambitious projects ever presented in the history of Documenta (Smith, 2009). A part of the project included living individuals visiting the small town of Kassel. The travelers, whose ages range from 2 to 70, come from dissimilar social classes and have dissimilar occupations and life styles. Because of the support the sponsors allowed a 3.1 million Euro budget, Ai was able to initiate an enormous process with several different aspects such as the planning of the tourist and educational activities, the location of suitable infrastructures, the creation of proper living and sanitary conditions, the design of utensils and furniture, the recruiting of personnel (cooks, video makers etc.), the processing of visa applications and travel insurance, in which every stage of the processes required overseeing by Ai and his FAKE team.
Ai states, ‘I see the whole process as the work itself. I see what kind of hopes, what kind of worries, what kind of frustrations… and waiting and anticipating. Many people said that it is already a miracle for them, it is already a fairytale’ (Colonnello, 2007).
The 1,001 Chinese travelers were in Documenta as tourists, viewers and as part of the artworks. One of the topics stressed in Fairytale is the person as a single individual and their individual experience within the context of their lives as citizens of a Communist country where the importance of the individual is lost to the dominance of the State. The choice of 1,001 participants was significant, not simply because of the logistical involving that number of people. Ai discussed the decision to invite 1,001 people to take part in the work:
The choice is due to the fact that what we really want to emphasize is “1” not “1,001”. Each participant is a single person, and that’s why our logo is “1=1000” that means that in the project 1,001 is not represented by one project, but by 1,001 projects, as each individual will have his or her independent experience (Colonnello, 2007).
That is, the person sees him or herself as an individual rather than as a collective or undifferentiated part of a mass, a not insignificant concept given the recent past of China. Each participant was asked to fill out 99 questions and was filmed on occasion from the preparatory stage through to their returns to China. This becomes a very foreign experience in anyone’s personal life, which will help each participant to think differently:
Against the backdrop of a totalitarian past and massive social changes, China is particularly in need of an exchange not based on institutions but rather on the individual (Ammer, 2007).
Project 2-1,001 Ming and Qing dynasty chairs
The second project was the installation of 1,001 late Ming and Qing dynasty chairs in clusters across the different exhibition venues (Appendix 2). The chairs echoed Ai’s past use of ‘Readymade,’ but their connection with the 1,001 Chinese participants added a more personal resonance to the way in which the objects were received. Able to be moved around and used by the public, the chairs provided an individual and collective place for people who came from all over the world for dialogue and exchange. Ai Weiwei’s Fairytale had staged a massive encounter between totally different cultures, each confronting the other and the unknown, in a context that was both familiar and strange.
Ai states, ‘I think that past and future, these two realities which are both internal and external to each person, are all integrated in very different forms and possibilities that make each individual unique. (Colonnello, 2007)’
Project 3-TEMPLATE-1, 001 Ming and Qing dynasty wooden window frames and doors
The third project, TEMPLATE, was composed of 1,001 late Ming and Qing dynasty wooden window frames and doors, which formerly belonged to destroyed houses from areas all over China, where entire ancient townships and villages had been destroyed (Appendix 3).
In many of the works discussed so far, the materials used in their construction have been identified as recycled elements of the past. Things that are no longer of use themselves, and that would otherwise be cast aside or thrown away.
Ai explains, ‘the materials I use comes from objects destroyed in the name of development, or would be used by antique dealers to make copies of antique future. (Colonnello, 2007)’
The artists recovered these pieces and, joining together five layers per side, formed an open vertical structure with an eight-pointed base, creating in its centre the volume of a traditional Chinese temple. The work had been exhibited in the courtyard of the greenhouse designed by Lacaton and Vassel also known as the ‘Crystal Palace,’ a temporary building erected ad hoc for Documenta 12. Ai bought the last fragments of that civilization and relocated them in a completely contemporary setting. Ai (2007) explains, ‘It really is a mixed, troubled, questioning context that protest for its own identity.’ Once counted, the pieces of which the Template is made up of surprisingly turned out to be exactly tantamount to 1001, a coincidence that Ai Weiwei finds significant (Smith, 2009). While standing in the middle of Template, the viewer is surrounded by a space that is fictional, abstract and ethereal.
Ai states, ‘I’m not religious, to me the temple itself means a station where you can think about the past and future, it’s a void space. The selected area, not the material temple itself, tells you that the real physical temple is not there, but constructed through the leftovers of the past (Colonnello, 2007).’
Constructed around a void, the structure becomes an empty shell, a void as in the spaces of ‘provisional landscapes’. The void is the disappearance of the civilizations from which the fragments were taken in the process of China redefining itself. Salvaging the leftovers of the past is not about the preservation of relics, or sufficient to construct something self-sustaining. Whatever meaning they had no longer exists.
Ironically, TEMPLATE as a structure collapsed under heavy weather conditions some days after its inauguration (Smith, 2009). This is the condition of time, a condition of temporality that governs everything and therefore offers no guarantee as to what will come after. One can only create the conditions of possibility through the actualisations that reveal the material force of its being. These actualisations are what is given at the time but they contain, nonetheless, a potentiality or virtuality which is yet to be determined. This then is the freedom of the work itself, and in turn the freedom of its audience.
The significant impact Fairytale made on the lives of the participants was the outstanding success of the work for Ai. By providing the 1,001 participants with the opportunity to travel overseas, Ai enabled them to be exposed to foreign culture and ideas, many for the first time. They were also able to experience a new world of ideas and possibilities that they would take with them on their return to China. In this way the impact of project continues to resonate for participants long after the event itself is over.
Ai explains, ‘It’s like a dream; they said it’s affected their lives and the way they look at the world…I really think a new awareness has been added to their lives (Colonnello, 2007).’
While Fairytale has been discussed as a modern mobilizing of the masses, directly reflecting the socio-cultural climate in China, the mass unity associated with socialism and its lingering impact on China’s social structure and strata, the communists’ emphasis on the group above the individual, restrictions of personal freedoms as well as the ‘reconnecting’ of China with the international community. For Ai, the intervention was emphatically aimed at the 1,001 individuals. Kassel is the home of the Brothers Grimm, hence Ai’s choice of title, which alludes to the unleashing of the imagination that makes fairytales so beloved by children (Merewether, C, 2008). 1,001 people sounds like a big group, but the impact of even visiting Kassel could only be understood at an individual level. Only of its results in a force for change, personal experience is the foundation for social change. Ai explains:
‘Everyone responds differently. I wanted to give the participants an opportunity to be conscious of that, to learn something about their imaginations and differentiations (Colonnello, 2007).’
Taking a cue from Warhol’s charge that ‘actually you have to change (things) yourself,’ this notion of art as a ‘force for change’ is the meridian running through Ai’s practice, uniting the form it takes, the materials it deploys and the diversity of activities it embraces (Smith, 2007). As a body of work, his art is emblematic changes, which again manifests in the diverse range of his practice as well as in the ambitions that drive the work and the scale of individual projects. All such opportunities are potential means of furthering the process of change.
Alnertini, C., Avaters and Antiheroes-A guide to Contemporary Chinese artists, Kodansha International, 2008.
Ammer, M., ‘Ai Weiwei: Fairytale performance,’ in Roder M Buergel (ed), Documenta Kassell, Taschen, Cologne, 16/06-23/09, 2007, p. 208.
Colonnello, N.’An interview with Ai Weiwei,’ Artzine, accessed 21 November 2007, <http://new.artzinechina.com>.
Colonnello, N., 1=1000, 2007, <“http://www.artnet.de/magazine/isa/features/colonnello08-10-07.asp”>.
Close, G., Ai Weiwei:Under Construction-Education Resource Kit, Campbelltown Arts Centre, Sydney, 2008.
Exhibition catalogue, Documenta Kassel, Taschen, Cologne, 16/06-12/09/2007, p. 356.
Merewether, C., Ai Weiwei:Under Construction, Univeristy of New South Wales in association with Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation and Campbelltown Arts Centre, Sydney, 2008.
Smith, K., AI WEIWEI. In: the real thing. Contemporary art in China, Abrame, New York, 2007, p. 39.
Smith, K. et al, AI WEIWEI, PHAIDON, 2009.