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Nataline Colonnello
10. August 2007
Recently, internationally acclaimed polymath artist, curator, writer, publisher and architect Ai Weiwei [born 1957, Beijing], has been preparing a large-scale, multi-faceted project to be presented this summer at Documenta 12. As part of his work, he is arranging the visit of 1001 Chinese citizens to the little town of Kassel (population 194.796). The tourists, as he calls them, will be divided into 5 groups, each group traveling in succession between June 12 and July 9, 2007.

Kassel is the native town of the Grimm brothers, who are famous around the world mainly for their fables for children. In the different versions of their Kinder – und Hausmärchen, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm methodically collected, artistically reformulated and published folk stories coming from the German classical literary and oral traditions, and this in order to record and perpetuate the national heritage of their country.

China has an incredibly long and rich tradition in terms of fairytales: myths, legends and folk stories have been recounted, chanted, painted, written and staged since ancient times, and nowadays they are still deeply part of people’s everyday life. If you want to hear a fairytale you do not need to go to remote areas in the countryside where, from time to time, whole villages still gather around itinerant storytellers and get enraptured for hours in their sagas. It does not matter what time of the day or night, you just have to catch a taxi in a city like Beijing, and almost surely you will be cast in the middle of the narration of this or that famous contemporary star of pinshu (storytelling); or you just have to get on a bus, or to go to a little shop, restaurant, or even to the hairdresser, and you will easily see the eyes of people glued on the umpteenth costume serial TV. 

Today’s China is so variegated and immersed in such a restless social, historical and material dismantling / building, amnesia-inducing activity that sometimes even those who live here can have the impression that reality and fairytale melt together, included what is happening around the booming local art scene, not only here but also in the international system.

Nataline Colonnello:Fairytale requires enormous financial, organizational, technical and human resources: for example, you had to set up a temporary travel agency together with your FAKE team, which now has more than 30 people working on the organization of the project. Can you tell me something more about the idea of Fairytale, and why you decided to enable such a large number of people to experience something that, for many participants, would otherwise remain a lifelong dream?

Ai Weiwei: Talking about the scale and the way in which it works, Fairytale is apparently different from my previous works, as it deals with living individuals, their lives, as well as their hope and imagination. I think that it is all these things that give a strong character to this project. I had the idea to make this happen during Documenta--for this special event I wanted to invite 1001 people. Since the formative stage of the concept, I was thinking about several matters, such as: how to announce it, how to get the response and reaction of people and through which channels, what kind of process to adopt, what kind of information to release, and how this would entail answering questions, filling up forms, applying for the program. This requires a lot of back and forth phone calls and electronic communication. We have to explain who we are, why we want to do this, and also to tell people what is possible and what is not, and so on and so on… a lot of work. I considered the whole process from the very beginning: to design the trip and activities for the tourists, to hope to get their passports, their visas, their insurance and air tickets, to organize the place where they can live in Kassel, to hire cooks, make products which are connected to the journey and would be needed for it, such as a warehouse, beds, cupboards, luggage… even t-shirts, USB information, computer-related technology… The point is: how to make everybody feel that all this is made for him or her, for each individual, and to enable the participants have a very detailed and carefully planned trip that is free? How to make sure that they have the absolutely correct conditions for traveling and being in this Documenta as viewers and at the same time as part of the work? 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… then the dream, then imagination, then… maybe surprise. This of course reflects a great number of social, political and economic factors, because we often have to ask who we are, what do we get from an event like this. It does not matter if you are accepted or denied; this becomes a very foreign experience in anyone’s personal life. As we know China is booming, but at the same time it is separated from the West… our culture, our own tradition, our own ways and habits on the one hand, and the global culture, the so called “establishment” on the other. That’s why we have our documentary team, the biggest documentary team ever for one single project: we have more than thirty people, ten to fifteen of the best documentary directors working in the team and trying to cover this whole project in the most complete, rich and broad sense possible.

Nataline Colonnello: Your blog is as well part of the work. In a few days you received so many submissions to your travel offer that only a couple of days later you had to remove the application from the web, as the demand largely exceeded any expectation and capacity. If such a big number of Chinese people showed interest in visiting a place about which many never even heard before, this massive encounter with a totally different culture will undoubtedly influence also the citizens of Kassel and the other Western visitors who, coming from all over the world, in one single week will crowd huge art events such as the Venice Biennale, Art Basel, Documenta

Ai Weiwei: At the beginning I did not want to announce my project through traditional media such as newspapers, television, but since I have been doing my personal blog for one year and I use it as a vehicle to express myself and to have direct communication with somebody unknown, somebody whom I would otherwise never have the chance to meet, I thought that maybe it would have been a good idea in order to help me to select people randomly. That’s why I announced it through my blog, but surprisingly within only three days we had over 3,000 people applying, and we had to stop it… we said: “Ok, now it is time to stop it, we have to set a deadline, we have to shut the door otherwise soon tens of thousands of people will submit their requests, and we will disappoint a lot of candidates.” I think we made a very good decision. The choice to apply is totally individual and relies on one’s determination, and I am really very thankful to anybody who does not know me well, does not know the program well and said “Yes, we want to participate in it because we believe this is a project for imagination and possibility.” Of course later they had to pay a lot of money, as they had to go back to their hometowns, to apply for a passport… sometimes it turned out to be very difficult, many were even denied, but for many others it was much easier. In any case, this process made people really realize what it means to be a man or woman as an identity and with a Nation: you have to go through the system, and the system can be simple or more complicated… the participants started thinking about getting a visa, and the visa is a matter of foreign affairs. I had to meet the German Ambassador Mr. Volker Stanzel, who is a very sensitive and culturally astute person who completely understood and fully supported my project, and thanks to this we could reach such an impressive result. What the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs did is simply amazing: we were given the strongest assistance I could ever imagine. If so many things had to be planned, at the same time many others you could never think about just happened during the whole organizational process. Many people said: “Oh, it is already a miracle for us, it is already a fairytale… even if I cannot go, this will help me to think differently for the rest of my life.” It is very encouraging when you hear some ordinary people saying that. Of course most of the participants were selected according to the fact that otherwise they would have never had the chance to have a foreign experience, would have never traveled of their own accord, or maybe even never had any opportunity to travel at all. Many of them are farmers, or people belonging to ethnic minorities, or retired people. The ages of the tourists range from 2 to 70. It is a very beautiful group and everyday I really think that this is a much more interesting, rewarding project than any other.

Nataline Colonnello: Your travelers come from different social classes, have different occupations and backgrounds: there are people from the art world as well as peasants who until now were not even existing for the official authorities, because they did not have an identity card or even an official name until now, as in the case of the participants coming from a remote minority village in Guanxi Province.

Ai Weiwei: Right, in some remote areas over there ladies do not have names. Besides them, many other people in the group are related to art, art practice, design, education… there are students, teachers.

Nataline Colonnello: Your project also includes, for example, an educational sub-program co-organized with BizArt Center, Shanghai, which will involve a group of 20 art students and teachers coming from different universities in the area of Shanghai.

Ai Weiwei: Exactly.

Nataline Colonnello: Talking about the total participants, they are 1001: many people think that the choice of this number is somehow reminiscent of “The Thousand and One Nights,” the classic collection of stories in Arabic, but I do not think this is the case. Can you tell me why you wanted to have 1001 travelers and not 1000? What does this final “1” represent? Could it be you?

Ai Weiwei: I am outside these 1001 Chinese citizens I will send to Kassel. The choice is due to the fact that what we really want to emphasize is “1,” not “1001.” Each participant is a single person, and that’s why our logo is 1=1000 -- that means that in this project 1001 is not represented by one project, but by 1001 projects, as each individual will have his or her own independent experience.

Nataline Colonnello: Each traveler had to answer a form with 99 questions and each of them is filmed during the preparatory process, during the trip and after returning to China. Everyday you are collecting a lot of footage, as it happens in this very moment, during our talk.

Ai Weiwei: Yes, by now we have already recorded 800 hours of taped material, which is crazy. There are so many stories and very different conditions. Later, when the tourists will be in Kassel and will confront the German society and real local life, it’s going to be an even wider thing. It is like bridging two absolutely dissimilar social positions.

Nataline Colonnello: In your past videos Beijing: Chang’an Boulevard (2004), Beijing: The Second Ring (2005), Beijing: The Third Ring (2005) and the earlier 153-hour long INTERVAL – From DaBeiYao to DaBeiYao, 8.10-7.11.2003 (2003), you mapped different areas of Beijing, collecting a gigantic assortment of objective video documentation about the ever-changing urban tissue of the metropolis. The video material about the 1001 participants to Fairytale you are assembling will serve as well as an extremely extensive, variegated and inestimably valuable documentation of this moment in history, as documentation of the socio-cultural, human landscape of today’s China. Talking about financial matters, if we consider that the video making is only a “fragment” of Fairytale as a whole work in all its different facets, we can easily follow how the entire project entails the need for a huge amount of financial support. The total cost for the realization of your Fairytale is tantamount to something like 3.1 million Euros. Can discuss how you gained financial support for the project?

Ai Weiwei: When I made the concept for Fairytale I realized that the cost would have been high, and of course I do not have that kind of money. I told my gallerist Urs Meile [of Galerie Urs Meile, Beijing-Lucerne]: ”I have this idea, I talked to many people, they all think it is very good, the Directors of Documenta Roger M. Buergel and Ruth Noack love it, and also Uli Sigg; but,” I said, “it will cost a lot, I do not know where to get the money.” I did not even expect Urs Meile would react to it, but he said: ”Yes, I know this concept, I think it’s very nice and I think it should be paid by one party, let me handle it.” I asked: “Do you think it will not be a problem?” as I was really doubtful about it. He said: “I think we can handle it,” and about one week later he told me: “Everything is fine, two Swiss private foundations showed interest in funding your project [the Leister Foundation and the Erlenmeyer Foundation].” Not too long later, he told me: “Everything is solid, we can sign the contract”. To say the truth, until today I did not have a look at the contract I signed. I told Urs:” I do not even need to go through it, if you read it, it is as if I read it.” The people from the foundations are really fine; they did not put much pressure on me, on the contrary there was almost no strain attached to this matter. I indeed could not imagine this would have happened like that… it is the first element, the first ingredient of Fairytale, it is unbelievable that something like that could come just like cotton, very smoothly. I feel a sense of trust, a sense of loyalty, a sense of friendship, and all this made the project very healthy and beautiful since the very beginning. I hope I can pay all the people who helped me back through my effort, through my artworks, and make them not discontented.

Besides Fairytale-1001 Chinese visitors, Ai Weiwei’s project for Documenta 12 consists as well of other works, among which Template, a huge installation that will be exhibited in the courtyard of the “acrylic glass Pavilion”, the greenhouse designed by Lacaton and Vassel also known as the “Crystal Palace”, a temporary building erected ad hoc for Documenta 12. The architecture of Template is comprised of late Ming and Qing Dynasty wooden windows and doors which, joined together in five layers per side, form an open vertical structure having an eight-pointed base. In spite of its large size (7,2 x 12 x 8,5 m), from afar the installation conveys the illusion of being something foldable, like a gigantic three-dimensional papercut. Where the external framework is massive and regular, the internal part of each wall made out of windows and doors is shaped according to the volume of a hypothetical Chinese traditional temple, giving the impression that the whole wooden construction was assembled around a building that later has been removed.

Nataline Colonnello: Let’s talk about another work this year you will show at Documenta: Template. In additional to the countless personal and collective stories formerly told and experienced behind each of the ancient doors and windows you used to shape your Template, this installation as a whole is connected to a curious anecdote: if at the beginning you thought the pieces you employed for its construction were about 800-900 hundred, once it was accomplished you eventually discovered that, incredibly, it was made out of 1001 parts.

Ai Weiwei: This is crazy! My carpenters and I never thought about a precise number at all, but after the work was built I called my carpenters and I asked them how many pieces it was composed of, as we had to ship it and to make the exact drawings. They came to me and eventually said: “Well, Weiwei, we have surprisingly to tell you that this work includes 1001 pieces. What is happening is kind of strange.” There are so many weird things happening these days that you do not feel so astonished anymore.

Nataline Colonnello: It’s some kind of “yuanfen”1.

Ai Weiwei: Yes… I mean, coincidence means something.

Nataline Colonnello: While standing in the middle of Template, the viewer is surrounded by a space that is fictional, abstract and ethereal. Why did you want to have a temple, a physically “missing” temple, as the heart of your outdoor installation?

Ai Weiwei: The windows and doors I employed in former times used to belong to destroyed houses located in the Shanxi area, Northern China, where entire old towns have been pulled down. We bought the fragments from different quarters, and these are probably the last pieces of that civilization. I like to use these leftovers as part of… not a sentiment, but evidence of our past activity. I like to carry these pieces into a completely contemporary context and I think it works well. It really is a mixed, troubled, questioning context, and a protest for its own identity. To me the temple itself--you know I’m not religious--means a station where you can think about the past and the 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.

Nataline Colonnello: Do you think that everybody has his/her own inner temple?

Ai Weiwei: Yes, I think that everybody has such a thing.

Nataline Colonnello: Another installation you will present in Documenta 12 is Fairytale-1001 Qing Dynasty wooden chairs, a workconsistsing of 1001 chairs dating back to the Qing and late Ming Dynasties. Are they as well meant to serve as stations for reflection?

Ai Weiwei: I think people will just pass them, or stop by and look at them, and think about them. Yes, there will be seats there, people can sit around… To me, events such as Documenta or Fairytale are like temples…

Nataline Colonnello: If we consider all the works you will show in Documenta 12--Fairytale-1001 Chinese visitors, Template, as well as Fairytale-1001 Qing Dynasty wooden chairs and your and your porcelain work Prototype for The Wave--you put together an extremely wide range of elements dealing with the past, present and future of China, and you give your clear but open answer to the three leitmotifs of the exhibition “Is modernity our antiquity?”; “What is bare life?” and “What is to be done?” It will be very interesting to see what kinds of responses your project will bring, when we consider that also from the Western side a gap exists in the information in the West about Asian culture and contemporary China--a great part of the knowledge Western people generally have about China is based on media information and its continuous alerts about the ever-increasing economic power of this country. Fairytale will undoubtedly put Western people in the condition to face reality and at the same time some kind of fear. Maybe many of those who will be in Kassel at that time have never been to China before, but they will find Chinese people over there, in a culturally familiar context. We will see how Fairytale will change all the people who come into contact with it.

Ai Weiwei: Kassel is a place where people gather, live and disappear on their own paths once the visit is over. 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, with his or her own life, landscape, possibilities… To me it’s just reality. It can be sad, it can be magical, it can be wonderful, it’s a way for me to approach reality and to try and grab as much as possible. The whole West-East imagination or fear will be under the moon, across the street: they will meet. There is such hype around China. Well, it is about 1/5 of the whole world’s population. There are a lot of fantasies and concern about this country. I think that now it’s time that all these fantasies about life and art can meet.

Nataline Colonnello: I heard that besides all the other activities in which you will be involved during your stay in Kassel you will also work as a barber.

Ai Weiwei: As a barber and cook.

Nataline Colonnello is the director of Urs Meile Gallery, Beijing

Mehr im Dossier  Kunst in China
Mehr im Dossier  documenta 12

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