Transcription of an interview with Ai Wei Wei. He’s doing the answers. Pictures are by me.
What is the method of construction of your latest exhibition?
This is Chinese household furniture that folks have been using for thousands of years. They are the most ordinary objects in southern China. The material is bamboo. If you look closely, the poles and the chairs are one thing.
How does the piece reflect your relationship with Herzog and de Meuron?
We have been doing several projects together and we have a mutual understanding about art and architecture. We often share concepts and ideas. The relationship is part of architecture but its also more important than architecture.
Was the Bird’s Nest stadium the first part of this collaboration?
Yes. After that we did several projects, more conceptually driven. Life is always more interesting than art.
Did you watch any of the Olympics?
I didn’t, but so many people did. One person not watching doesn’t make a difference.
Were you pleased with the generally positive reaction once the Games had started?
It gave me a chance to see how society functions both in the West and the East, and how this communication is superficial. Also, how people avoid talking about the issues, people want celebration after celebration.
Did the Olympics give you a platform to make criticisms?
You always have to be alert of the stage you are on and how you use it, and know why or for what cause you are discussing. We have to continually adjust our positions and speak out on matters.
Why do you think the reaction to the stadium showed a superficial relationship between East and West?
I think we have completely different histories, philosophically, morally, and in real life. The approaches can be quite different. But I think the interesting thing is to make contact and to try to integrate each other’s point of view. The stadium offers us a platform for analysing our differences.
How many buildings have you designed?
About 60 projects in Beijing.
And how did the first project come about?
I needed a place to live and I needed it quickly. I had spent a lot of time with my mum and suddenly she got a bit tired of the big child who always stayed at home with no job. I came back from the United States, without a university diploma or a degree. It was weird to always stay at home, so I decided to build my own studio. I designed it in one afternoon and then we built it in the next 60 days.
When and where was the house built?
In 1999, in the north east of Beijing. I am still living in it. I never applied for planning.
So people saw this and said, ‘can you do one for me?’
All my work came from people saying ‘can you do one for me?’. I never went out looking for a job.
You say you work in architecture, but you do art and you do design. Do you divide your practice?
Now, we have to do that. We have maybe 20 people working solely on architecture. We have others working on art practice, installations, designs and production.
You were critical of the demolition of old buildings in Beijing. Have the authorities stopped demolition?
Whatever they do the result is completely different from the reason they do it.
Please tell us about the Ordus project.
It is an international architecture event. Hundreds of architects gathered in one place, 45 minutes from Beijing by plane. The designs that came out are so surprising, so crazy. I did the urban plan, but it was really to set up the basic rules. They have a lot of freedom.
What are the local materials?
Like western materials, but not very good quality. It will be finished in two years.
Who’s the client?
It’s a private client but the local people are very much like people in Dubai where they have a lot of natural resources, like gas and coal. They have the highest income in China in that small area.
How have the architects involved reacted?
I was surprised. When you see hundreds of architects from all over the world together, it reflects the art, our culture, and architecture culture in the past decades: the education, the lifestyle, the habits they have and how they face the challenge of the new conditions. It is more like a festival.
Do you think of it as an architecture, planning, or art project?
To me, it’s a human project. It has art, architecture, imagination and politics. It’s a lot of communication between architects, and an exchange of ideas.
Why is it so easy for you to work across scales, compared to a western architect?
I grew up in the desert. The desert is vast. A human is so small and insignificant there. Also, I grew up in a culture of revolution. You really have a big ideology, you think very big. Today, China is developing so fast: you always try to make yourself reflect the time. Before you would never have imagined what is possible today.
Do you feel that the Olympics had a positive effect on Beijing in particular, on China, or is it mainly negative?
Watching the authorities in China is like watching a random attack. A man tries to hit you but instead someone else gets killed and you are so happy because it was someone else who got killed and not you. When you talk about the result you generally talk about intentions, but not here. The intention and the result are completely different things. It’s like 9/11. What happened on 9/11 changed a lot of things but it was not what was in these terrorists’ minds. Chinese society is not aware or self-reflective. The authorities try to impress the world for the wrong reasons.
Do you sell your art in China or abroad?
I have almost no sales in China and my art only started to sell worldwide after 2005. My buyers are mainly Europeans now, with some in the United States.
Pictures of the Beijing National Stadium, Ai Wei Wei and Herzog de Meuron, 2008