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In the studio: a glimpse into Ai Weiwei’s world

Behind the scenes

Published 10 December 2014

Curator Adrian Locke gets to know artist Ai Weiwei and his studio team on a sunny day in Beijing.

  • Part two in a series of blogs telling the story of how our forthcoming Ai Weiwei exhibition – the latest in our sequence of major single artist shows – is being put together across 10 months, by teams across three continents.

    For my first visit to Beijing I was incredibly lucky. Barack Obama was due to visit for the APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) conference, which meant that the government had ordered a large number of factories to drastically reduce production, as well as restricting the number of cars in circulation – just as they did during the 2008 Olympic Games. As a result, I was greeted with blue skies and views of the distant mountains from my hotel room as opposed to the choking smog and poor visibility normally associated with the city. By normal standards the traffic was also free flowing, so much so that when Ai Weiwei took me to one of his studios outside of the city his catnap in the car was shorter than he had expected.

    Our trip out of the city had been preceded by lunch at the studio. Ai Weiwei was about to leave the compound to take us to a local restaurant when the studio cook walked past with a plate of food. It was, it turned out, a typical dish from the Xinjiang region of northwest China when he was brought up and where his father, the poet Ai Qing, had been internally exiled by Chairman Mao during the Cultural Revolution. Ai Weiwei changed his mind: we would, he declared, be eating at the studio. No one dissented and we feasted on an exquisite rice dish cooked with mutton and plums. Ai Weiwei generously shared a smoked duck that he had been gifted that morning and which is a particular favourite of his.

  • The team ate together after having sat outside in the garden in the warm autumnal sunshine. The first day had been a great success as we spoke in general terms about the exhibition and relaxed in each other’s company, each side getting a feel for the other. We discussed the exhibition and other related activities, such as press interviews, television coverage and a public programme. We had taken a copy of the Anselm Kiefer exhibition catalogue which also provoked an interesting discussion. Tomorrow would be a sterner test as we prepared to allocate work to each room in the RA’s Main Galleries and create the exhibition.

    Having seen his work at three studios and met many of his energetic and committed studio team, I felt privileged both to have been in his company all day and to have gained insights into his working practice. The following day would turn out to be the most important of my visit.

    Ai Weiwei is in the Main Galleries from 19 September — 13 December 2015.