My tour de force
In the Venice Biennial gift shop, there's a bag printed with the phrase 'I am a piece of conceptual art'. It's a mediocre joke, but for 1,001 Chinese visitors to the other big European exhibition happening at the same time, Documenta 12, the statement is true.
One of China's best known contemporary artists, Ai Weiwei, arranged to bring 1,001 of his fellow citizens to the small German town of Kassel for a conceptual work called Fairytale, which involves nothing more than travelling to the city and becoming a living part of the three-month-long exhibition.
Costing Euro3.1 million (HK$33.4 million), Fairytale is Documenta's single most expensive artwork. Ai will eventually use documentation of the visits to produce a film and other works. 'The criterion is very simple,' says Ai. 'For anyone between 18 and 65, it's a free trip.'
He says the project is about individual consciousness and the idea is for his delegation to confront the place it travels to as well as contemporary art.
'There's no physical presentation,' he says. 'People ask me, 'What is the form?' And I say the form is in the individual's mind and in the heart. The sensation is there. You can't see it, but this will affect their lives when they go back. It affected them before they came.'
Fairytale is ambitious, but that's hardly surprising for a man who has gone from being a founding member of the mainland's avant garde to an international art star and a designer of Beijing's Olympic Stadium. (The commission, now three years behind him, is one he says he'd like to forget because he's 'not interested in all that sh***y nationalism'.)
Ai grew up in Xinjiang province, where his father Ai Qing, one of the mainland's pre-eminent modern poets, was exiled during the Cultural Revolution. His earliest works were traditional ink brush paintings, which he exhibited in 1979 as part of the Stars Group, the mainland's first avant-garde exhibition. He lived in New York from 1981 to 1993, when he returned to Beijing. The art he has produced since spans sculpture, photography and video.
When Documenta's curators approached Ai last year about creating a work for the exhibition, he says he quickly accepted the proposal - and the money. The funding was arranged by his Swiss agent, Urs Meile, through two private Swiss foundations, the Leister Foundation and the Erlenmeyer Foundation.
Meile says Fairytale moves far beyond the oil painting and Mao-pop that's popular in the art world. 'I thought this was a way to give my input - that what's happening in China can be happening in no other place in the world,' Meile says. 'That was really the point.'
Documenta also provided the perfect, highly funded experimental art laboratory for a work such as Fairytale to come to life. 'I wouldn't do it in other art venues,' Ai says. 'But Documenta has the capacity to take on the challenge.'
In contrast to the grand fetes and celebrity gossip of the Venice Biennial, Documenta is concerned much less with being sexy and much more with the responsibility of new art to its own history and the world at large.
Education is a major component and, unlike Venice, where the main halls turned church-silent after the galas of the opening weekend, Documenta was still lively with lectures, film programmes and impromptu discussion sessions two weeks after its mid-June opening.
Ai was one of several artists chosen by Documenta curators as a sort of leitmotif, with different works appearing throughout the half dozen or so exhibition venues citywide. His 1,001 Qing Dynasty Chairs comprises antiques that are scattered through exhibition halls as rest areas, while his eight-metre-tall Template - a minor monument assembled from antique doors and windows taken from demolished buildings - served as a centrepiece for a pavilion until a storm blew it over a week into the show.
Documenta introduces the piece in its catalogue as both a study of 'how knowledge is transmitted' and as a form of affirmative action that cuts across class and national boundaries to bring visitors who wouldn't otherwise be able to attend a show that's still predominantly for a western audience.
'Against the backdrop of a totalitarian past and massive social changes,' write the organisers, 'China is particularly in need of an exchange not based on institutions but rather on the individual.'
The 'Ai Weiwei Chinese', as they've come to be called, discovered the opportunity for the trip through a post on Ai's blog, which received more than 3,000 applicants within three days. The 1,001 were selected randomly from that pool, then tested by a questionnaire for compatibility with 99 questions about art, politics, Germany and western culture.
Before coming to Germany, most had to apply for their first passports, which was made easier by the implementation of the mainland's passport law at the beginning of the year. The law theoretically makes it easy for any Chinese citizen to obtain a passport within two weeks of application.
Of the 1,001, only two passport applications were rejected - one was a policeman, Wu Youming, who had criticised his department - as were three German visas, which Ai says is 'a record'.
Early reports on Fairytale played up the participation of Guangxi province farmers and others of China's 800 million rural folk - some-thing that would have been fairytale-like, but generally wasn't the case.
The dozen or so I met seemed to be artists, art students, screen-writers, curators and other creative types. There were a couple of regular guys from Liaoning, but they were friends of painter Liu Xiaodong and included his older brother, Liu Xiaochun.
Group members mention a Taoist priest from Shanxi who'd been handing out business cards in the Friedrichsplatz, Kassel's town square, but more typical are two young women, Zhou Yi and Yang Yiying. Both are 25 years old and, although born in the provinces, are now living in Beijing.
Zhou says the rejection of her husband Wu Youming's passport application was reported in the foreign press. Clearly, they're ready to engage with the west.