Reactor

Looking at Cats with Ai Weiwei

by Laura C. Mallonee on September 5, 2014

One of Ai Wei Wei's cats (Photograph by Matt Robinson, courtesy of Puss Puss Magazine)

One of Ai Weiwei’s cats (photo by Matt Robinson, courtesy ‘Puss Puss’ magazine)

“It’s all about the cats,” Ai Weiwei said recently, sitting in his Beijing compound in conversation with a writer for a new feline-themed magazine called Puss Puss. “They stay here, some have babies here, but it’s their home and really an oasis for us.” 

The first issue of the magazine, launched by designer Maria Joudina last month, contains a full spread featuring Ai at home with his 30 (or so) cats. His prized sherbert-colored tabby appears in a couple images, slinking against a door and rubbing its striped fur against a tree trunk. “This is their place,” he explains.

Ai Weiwei at home (photo by Matt Robinson, courtesy 'Puss Puss' magazine) (click to enlarge)

Ai Weiwei at home (photo by Matt Robinson, courtesy ‘Puss Puss’ magazine) (click to enlarge)

Like the tabby, Ai stands alone in the spread wearing a double-breasted jacket, his face framed in the natural lighting of his austere, industrial home. It seems less a portrait of a political artist and more like something out of Vogue — which isn’t unusual for Ai. In 2011, he directed a photo shoot for W magazine.

And Puss Puss is, after all, a fashion magazine. When Jourdina was raising funds for production earlier this year, she promised it would put cats “in the stylish and beautiful space they belong.” There would be no “cat food advice” but rather sleek photography and illustration. Cat ladies out. Supermodels — and Chinese dissidents — in. 

Another of Ai's cats (photo by Matt Robinson, courtesy 'Puss Puss' magazine)

Another of Ai’s cats (photo by Matt Robinson, courtesy ‘Puss Puss’ magazine)

But the chic spreads of Puss Puss are only the latest product of a fashion world quick to champion feline aesthetics. Think photo shoots with Choupette, the beloved birman of Chanel’s creative director, Karl Lagerfeld, or cat-themed collections by brands like Miu Miu. Other features in Jourdina’s first issue include an interview with a designer of cat-themed scarves and photographs of Vogue UK’s creative director at home with his cats. It may sound like kittie porn, but it’s not nearly as strange as some toddler fashion glossies.

What’s so intriguing — and perhaps also irritating — about the magazine is that it doesn’t try to decipher what cats mean to us, as countless writers have attempted to do in recent years (including Hyperallergic’s Jillian Steinhauer). Instead, it seems to suggest that our preoccupation with cats — the countless memes, photos, and articles that have gone viral — is skin-deep. We like the way cats look. We like the way they make us look. Maybe Ai Weiwei does too. Could it really be as simple as that? 

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  • Jane

    I didn’t find much strange with the linked “toddler glossy.” Sure, they looked liked shrinky dink versions of adults in a few places. But the overall impression I get (leaving aside issues of economic privilege) is that the kids were transported from some utopian emancipated 22nd century. Kinda love it.

  • Anarcissie

    If you just like the way cats look, you’re missing about 99% of what they can give you.

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