The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei made an appearance in Paris this weekend for the opening of his largest exhibition in the French capital to date — staged in a department store, of all places. Weiwei, who is renowned for exhibiting outside the traditional spaces, was invited to take over the windows and the central salon of the Left Bank luxury institution, Le Bon Marché, to promote its “White Sale.”
For the show, dubbed “Child’s Play” (or “Er Xi”), Weiwei took inspiration from the “Shan Hai Jing,” traditional Chinese children’s tales that date as far back as the fourth century B.C. and have been passed down from generation to generation. The fables feature mythological creatures resembling birds, fish and dragons — which the artist describes as “friendly, cheeky and unfortunate” characters. “They so much resemble our world,” he says with a smile.
Despite the rich cultural significance of these stories, the artist laments that his generation and subsequent generations have missed out on them due to censorship laws imposed by the People’s Republic of China. “Everything old was forbidden or destroyed and anything imaginary — anything related to fantasy — was not allowed,” he says of his upbringing.
With the help of a dozen kite makers from the Shandong Province in China, Weiwei has brought the characters of Shan Hai Jing to life in the form of 100 or so kites, in varying shapes and sizes. The kites, hand-constructed from bamboo and clothed in white silk (as opposed to the traditional — and very fragile — rice paper), took a year to complete and were transferred in their final state to Paris in giant shipping containers. Many of the kites in the exhibition are left in their bamboo skeleton form, unadorned by cloth, to better display the workmanship and the artistic process.
“Child’s Play” is broken into three parts. In the windows that line the street, Weiwei has created 10 vignettes that mingle the wondrous creatures alongside a contemporary storyline with autobiographical allusions. Here, kite-like recreations of his most-famous works “Surveilance Camera” (2006), “Brain Inflation” (2009) and “Study of Perspective” (1995-2011) are on display, as well as references to the work of his father, the eminent Chinese poet and activist Ai Qing, who spent time in Paris in the 1920s and ‘30s. Interned in labor camps for the first 20 years of his son’s life, Qing influenced Weiwei’s own politically charged work — which, in turn, saw the artist put under house arrest and unable to travel for four years (his passport was confiscated).
Since Weiwei’s passport was returned to him in July of last year, he has explored the theme of freedom of movement in his work, and recently set up a studio on the Greek island of Lesbos, the gateway to Europe for the bulk of asylum seekers. One of the department store’s windows, “With Passport,” makes reference to his own struggle: Weiwei cast himself as a “Door God,” a traditional Chinese figure that wards off evil spirits, surrounded by bamboo Twitter birds, surveillance cameras and a passport from the People’s Republic of China. “In Chinese mythology, the Door God is someone standing next to the door to protect the temple,” he says. “Here I am protecting freedom of speech.”
Inside the store, 20 mythological creatures loom above the cosmetics department, while a 20-meter-long dragon is positioned on the ground floor.
“This casualness of urban culture is very appealing: It’s not like being in a museum, in a white box — it’s part of a metropolitan landscape — and the people, or audience, are not artgoers,” Weiwei says. “People experience the art as they go about their day and something unconsciously happens.”