A Chinese artist and global art star, Ai Weiwei is an intelligent, quick, smiling, mischievous, facetious, surprising, off-center human being, by turns moral and inflammatory. What else? He doesn’t take himself seriously but is nevertheless able to say: “I am art.”
And when you are art, you can show yourself everywhere, including in a luxury department store, that is to say at the Bon Marché in Paris. The exhibition devoted to him is opening on Sunday. I announced it as early as last July, during my visit to his studio in Beijing. That was another era, olden times. Then, Ai Weiwei didn’t have a passport at his disposal. He was under Chinese house arrest. The moment was serious. He was being punished by the government because of his political insolence. He can now indulge in a little lightness. And lightness is here, literally as well as figuratively. The overwhelming majority of his work at the Bon Marché (all shop windows as well as some rooms are suspended in space) is made of a traditional Chinese material used to build kites—a bamboo structure and tissue paper. Traditionally and in the sky, kites are colorful. At the Bon Marché, everything is white. A facilitator taking me around what is already in place (a large wall devoted to a reproduction of his selfies is missing) isn’t laughing when she tells me that given that this is the Bon Marché’s “white sale” month (discounts on linens), we should be grateful that the artist’s works are white too. I ask her whether this was the department store’s desire; she responds, still without laughing: “No, we gave him carte blanche.”
Aesthetically, Ai Weiwei’s “white sale” is quite successful. A group of installations, monsters, fantasies, clever utopian constructions, all particularly poetic. Fragile and graceful. Not immediately identifiable. Back in the street, I meet Ai Weiwei, who offers some clues. In one of the shop windows, he had Nude Descending a Staircase, the scene painted by Marcel Duchamp’s 1912, reconstituted in bamboo. The original work, which deals with the illusion of movement through the reproduction of the undressed young woman’s attitude, is impossible to recognize. In truth, some windows present an anthology of the artist’s usual vocabulary. The smartest viewers may therefore have some fun trying to find a surveillance camera designed in bamboo, a reference to the Chinese authorities’ omnipresence around the artist in Beijing. Inside the department store, references are made to the heroes from Shanhai Ching, the “Classic of Mountains and Seas,” a work of Chinese mythology that often evokes genies rebelling against the Emperor and powerful beings such as this spectacular eight-headed fish.
Is money a motivator?
“Money is a visa to the modern world.”
Ai Weiwei also talks about the week he spent on the island of Lesbos during Christmas, about refugee families, about people crammed 60 to a boat, about the camps’ omnipresent humidity, about deep darkness starting at 4 in the afternoon. He’s setting himself up there as an observer. “I’m learning and have just opened a workshop there. We must talk about what’s happening.”
And then he tells me about his Lego saga. “What? You don’t know? It was in yesterday’s New York Times, no less! Lego has announced that from now on I can buy anything I want from them.” Rendered timid by his rebellious attitude toward Chinese power, the toy company had until now refused to supply him with the little cubes children amuse themselves with. So the activist-on-all-fronts organized a worldwide crowd-sourced Lego procurement system through social networking. “It kept me from sleeping last night. What am I going to do with all these Legos?”
Throughout the interview, with his telephone, he takes a picture of us, a picture of me that he posts on Instagram, a picture of my ring that he posts on Instagram. And still more photos. In turn, I take a picture of him. He comes close to the phone to show his face in close-up.
He concludes: “I’m deadly serious.”
And before leaving, upon seeing me head toward the still-empty store, he adds for good effect: “Go on, take whatever you want.”