With news of Ai Weiwei’s detainment all over international media and Chinese officials investigating Weiwei for economic crimes, the second portion of our chat with Alison Klayman, director of “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” comes amid a storm of Weiwei news. In this segment, Klayman talks about Weiwei’s process and interest in materials. Important throughout is the notion of the “idea” as the art.
Read the second part of my conversation with Alison Klayman after the jump.
CR: How do ideas blossom? Does he think about material first – perhaps about using ceramic – and then begin sourcing the right craftsmen?
I do think it comes from that. It also comes from being into material. Ceramics is a special case, because he has a really strong relationship for his producer down there… whose name is also Weiwei. When he goes down there, the guy has literally built a wing of his house with pictures of Ai Weiwei, as if he’s both patron saint and patron. Ai Weiwei will go done there and see what they are working on. Then, he’ll think about perhaps using some of the things, or collaborate with the factory. For sculpture, he works with a friend who he thinks is one of the best.
There is always an interesting interplay between craft, fine art, and utilitarian objects in Weiwei’s work.
I think right now he’s getting into marble.
CR: Carved marble?
There are carved marble surveillance cameras. But, he’s also really into marble as just a material. He’s also really into wood. I think the porcelain workers and the furniture workers are the ones he has the closest relationship with. The furniture makers are around Beijing.
CR: I wonder about the relationship between all the distinct actors in the larger art making process. What roll does everyone play and how are they directed?
Like I said, he has a larger warehouse space outside of his home studio. I’ve been there with him and the furniture makers, and he’ll inspect the samples. And from there, he’ll direct a little. It’s always based on his idea, based on his sketch which is really loose, which then might lead to a sample.
CR: Like Frank Gehry’s stuff?
AK: The funny thing is, I’ve been told that he has a perfect command of the line. As an art student for doing things with such great ease, and classmates would be in total awe. I don’t know if that is true. But, he also used to do portraits when he was in New York. Today, the sketch is pretty basic. It’s not supremely detailed.
It seems there are some artists that work very closely with their staff, or others who just leave the idea in the hands of the assistants.
One of his art assistants that has worked with Weiwei for five years describes the experience as Weiwei has an idea and he is interested in what the constraints of the idea are, and then within that the assistant feels very free to create. I’ve seen him been shot down, but I’ve also seen the assistant’s ideas come to fruition. I think Weiwei’s style is to bring oversight and detail power, but he checks in when it is on his mind, because he has so much going on. I can’t think of many artists who have so much going on in both the activist realm and intellectually.
CR: When I’ve seen his work, I always feel I need the background to enjoy it. It is sometimes quite difficult to draw the story out just by viewing the object.
I agree completely. I’m really in love with his work when I know the full story. Not that there isn’t something aesthetically compelling, or something perfectionist about the way it was done… but something like his work with chandeliers, he did giant sculptures and went to the same manufacturer that makes the chandeliers in the Great Hall of the People, and the idea of what he was winking at and the political subplot makes the objects much more interesting.
His role models are Duchamp and, even, Warhol. The notion is that the idea matters. And, the idea goes beyond what the work ends up being. I think that is pretty strong in Weiwei’s work. There is something larger than what you are seeing.
He’s not shying away, he’s not going for the most facile political reference. The basic reference for the sun flowers would be related to Mao. But, that wasn’t the first, second, or third reason Weiwei had for the installation. He goes to the extreme, and sometimes goes for the most digestible but sensational soundbite. And when other people say things, he doesn’t always step out to correct them. Because life, and his image, are part of his art. I do think he views his whole life is art, and I think that coincides with his whole use of the internet. Not even through activism, but through his documentation.
There was a project where he was engaged in 1001 people, plus their family, plus whoever they encountered in Germany. And, all the people that applied or read about it online. He described it as a sad and overwhelming project, but I think that appeals him. The reaching of a lot of people. It’s part of his practice.
CR: How do you see reaction to his work differing around the world?
AK: I don’t know if it does. Within the art world, he’s a pretty big celebrity. I feel like he’s really embraced in the West, and not just from a gallerist perspective. I’ve seen him speak at Miami Basel, I’ve seen him speak in New York, and in Germany. London, as well.
CR: Also, I think there are a lot of people who are a bit unaware as to why we know who Weiwei is… as an artist we should know.
AK: I mean, I’m making a movie about him. But, for me the challenge was figuring out who the documentary is for. I wanted it to be for the people who think he’s been done to death – the people who either know why he’s in the news or are still unsure – and for the people who aren’t aware of him. With all he appears in social media and the art world, and if you follow China, it is easy to forget the vast majority doesn’t know and there is know name recognition.
CR: I can say his name and get blank stares and also mention the sunflower seeds and there is a spark.
AK: Totally. I think spanning those audiences is my goal. Luckily, there’ enough material to keep both parties interested. Is there is a question on the table as to why people should be interested? I really think it has a lot to do with China and what’s happening there. He’s really well positioned given how much time he’s spent in New York and just as a creative genius capable of being directly on the pulse of things – using digital media as well – that’s why he’s a phenomenon.
CR: He’s seems obsessed with the “idea.” Sort of a foreign concept for artist’s who more frequently hinge their obsession on an object or on a thing.
AK: His art is about possibility and that can take you so many places. Also, often all he does is set up the conditions for something. I approach him at every corner with skepticism and think, “Am I convinced.” And, often I really am. He’s ok with whatever the outcome is, or ready. Whether it’s showing up at the police station to file a complaint with cameras in tow… whatever happens he has set the conditions. Or, making 100million seeds… and just seeing what can happen with them.