Some Ai Weiwei art will be lost to wrecking ball, artist’s assistant says as demolition work on his Beijing studio continues
Exiled artist’s staff say they won’t have time to pack up and move all the works stored at his studio in a former factory on the outskirts of Beijing, where pending demolition work began without warning late last week
Some of the works Ai Weiwei had stored at his Beijing studio would not escape the wrecking ball, an assistant to the dissident Chinese artist said on Monday, three days after demolition crews began tearing it down.
Ai’s staff were racing against the clock to save what they could of the works at the exiled artist’s studio in the Zuo You Arts Compound on the outskirts of the Chinese capital, where dozens of buildings on a 4,000 square metre site have been reduced to rubble. The front gates of some buildings are plastered with eviction notices.
“We will preserve whatever we can,” said the assistant, Xia Xiang. “We just try to save as many as possible. Moving them needs preparation. We have to pack them up; it takes time.
“For those artworks which we don’t have enough time to pack up, there's nothing we can do.”
Another assistant who works for Ai said staff were looking for suitable places to store the artworks saved. “Ai only has one [warehouse] in Beijing to store his artworks. There are no other places. Since we start operating here in 2006, no one has come here to disturb us before,” this assistant said.
While Ai and neighbours in the compound had recently been notified the premises they occupied would be demolished, they weren’t told when the work would begin.
Ai, who now lives in Berlin, posted videos on Instagram showing several men looking on from inside the hollowed-out brick and concrete building as a backhoe went to work.
“Farewell,” he wrote in English, saying the demolition had begun without notice.
A neighbour who rented a warehouse near Ai’s studio for seven years said the compound in Songzhuang, Tongzhou district, was owned by a property developer.
“Ai was among the first batch of artists who moved to the compound. It was a formerly a place for making tractors. When we first came here, the roads were bad … but the rent was cheap,” said the neighbour, who asked not to be named.
“Last year, when my tenancy expired, the landlord told me there would be no more tenancy renewal. He didn’t say the place would be demolished, though. He just said we had to move.
“I know Ai’s tenancy also expired last year and the landlord, who is the same as mine, should have told him to move out when his tenancy expired too. It’s not a sudden thing. His people just don’t have enough time to move all the things out.”
The neighbour said few of the tenants wanted to leave the compound. “Since the landlord told me last year to move out soon, I have been looking for [a new] place. But the whole of Beijing is being torn down. I still couldn’t find a proper place. Other places are too expensive. I will continue living here until [I can’t live any more].”
Ai helped design the Bird’s Nest Olympic Stadium for the 2008 Beijing Games, but fell out of favour following his criticism of the Chinese leadership over the deaths of thousands of schoolchildren in shoddily built schools destroyed by a May 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province.
The artist was detained for 81 days in 2011 amid a crackdown on government critics. His passport was confiscated and he moved to Berlin after it was returned to him in 2015.
Additional reporting by AFP