bird’s nest

August 12, 2008

Now that the Olympic games have started in Beijing, it is difficult to miss seeing the event’s stunning new stadium, known as the Bird’s Nest. Its deconstructed order made it love at first sight for me, as opposed to its neighbour the Water Cube. The stadium is the work of the Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron, with the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei as its artistic consultant, a term he does not like, according to the report below by Ed Vulliamy.

In fact, he has never visited the stadium he designed, and says he never will, preferring instead to stroke his cats and have a bit of lunch. This very mild explanation from a usually confrontational artist was eventually expanded on here, with Ai explaining why he would not attend the opening ceremony held there. Read on to follow someone who went in seach of the real Ai Weiwei.

‘On my final day in Beijing, I go in search of the Bird’s Nest’s creative origins, which entails a journey beyond the depressing Lego-brick city to a very intriguing quarter. ‘Arts Zone 798’ and the series of studios beyond it constitute a rather lovely corner of Beijing, where old streets and buildings have been spared the bulldozer and turned into a kind of trendy theme park in which the authorities seem not only to permit but encourage cultural activity.

This is where the male ponytails and John Lennon glasses are, the sidewalk cafes with smoked-salmon salads, art galleries and boutiques that sell Mao-chic clothing – wonderful silk dressing gowns printed with pictures of the Red Guard. And a little way beyond here is the studio of the most remarkable artist in China, Ai Weiwei. On the wall looking on to the street are neon letters reading simply ‘FUCK’.

The Bird’s Nest was designed by the Swiss company Herzog & de Meuron; but the ideas were Ai’s. He is a gentle, thoughtful but bear-like man, wearing a T-shirt and beard. The architects called him the project’s ‘creative consultant’, but Ai says characteristically of his role: ‘I don’t need a title – I would prefer “The Untitled”.’

Ai grew up in the Xinjiang hard-labour camp, his father Ai Qing having been imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution as China’s leading poet and a foremost dissident. ‘I know what I know,’ Ai says, ‘because, as a child, I have seen the opposite of freedom. I have seen many people killed, the results of stupidity and cruelty and the results of courage. I have learned that to turn humankind into a creative force is a terrible problem.’

Ai studied at Beijing Film Academy, before founding an avant-garde circle called the Stars and emigrating to New York, where he lived for 12 years. In 1993, when his father fell ill, he returned to China, establishing a studio called East Village, then his current studio, called Fake – a thinly veiled play on the name of an exhibition he staged in Shanghai called ‘Fuck Off’ – and staging such installations as painting a Coca-Cola label on to an ancient Han vase and then smashing it.

It was a fine stroke by Herzog & de Meuron to turn the rascal of the Chinese alternative into the muse for China’s second most recognisable monument after the Great Wall. It means he can do what most Chinese cannot: speak his mind about the regime.

Ai worked on what he calls the ‘aesthetic and philosophical aspects’ of the stadium’s design: ‘on the shape, and how the shape would relate to the city and to the present situation in China’. We talk about the impression of swirling sturdiness upon seeing the stadium the first time: ‘control, and losing control and the same time’, as Ai puts it. ‘The shape of the stadium is intended to reflect yearning for the rule of reason, but not without passion and dynamism – wanting to show that the head and the heart can coexist.’

One of the most striking things about the Bird’s Nest is the way the latticework makes the arena open to the exterior. Many have observed that this is a way of keeping the smog from settling, by admitting a breeze. But there is another reason too, Ai says. ‘It is intended to be a statement about the need for a more open society, open discussion, greater transparency. I wanted it to have that kind of image, that kind of energy. I don’t believe you can relate architecture to political statements, but architecture will always relate to ideology. And I do not see ideology as a matter of left and right, or East and West, any more. I see the tension in ideology as being between a more interesting state of mind, and a more dreadful state of mind; these are the things that divide mankind. The artist should be for the interesting against the dreadful.’

Surprisingly, however, Ai has not yet visited the iconic building he inspired. ‘I have never been in a stadium in my life,’ Ai says, ‘and I never will. I doubt I will ever go into the Bird’s Nest, because I am leaving the city for the Olympics, and not as a boycott – as some have said. Yes, I feel outraged at the Chinese government, and I am disgusted by the way power is abused in this country. But I have been misunderstood – I think the Olympics is a good opportunity for greater transparency in China.

‘I am leaving town simply because I don’t want to have to talk about it all the time, and I don’t want to offend people by saying so,’ he continues. ‘I am much more interested in what is going to happen to it after the Games. I would like it to become a place where people like to go, bring their children or can come for mass weddings, or maybe mass divorces – or, best of all, to have big barbecues together.’

And what will be Ai’s next project? ‘I’m not sure. I’m very busy these days. Maybe to have some lunch, then a nap, or maybe to stroke my cats. I haven’t made up my mind.’


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