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Installation view of Ai Weiwei’s ‘Er Xi, Air de jeux’ at Le Bon Marché Rive Gauche (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless noted otherwise)

PARIS — Like a good student of the bottomless pit of fashion, Ai Weiwei has delivered big on his latest class assignment. His all-white (per the store’s request) tribute to classical Chinese heritage spans Le Bon Marché Rive Gauche’s display windows on Rue de Sèvres, two atriums, and a special exhibition gallery on the main floor of the chic department store. The show, Er Xi, Air de Jeu (or “Playground”), dovetails with the retail space’s White Sale, an annual promotional event started by Le Bon Marché founder Aristide Boucicaut (1810–1877). But where cringing celebrity optimization meets big money, can there be serious art?

Like any corporate activity, Er Xi whitewashes overly difficult personal style. Although enjoyable as silly fun and artisan bamboo craft, the exhibition lacks anything recognizable as art and makes no political statement. It’s a conceptual disappointment within the post-Je Suis Charlie and post-November 13 Parisian context. It may be good corporate scenic ornamentation and crowd-pleasing luxury design, but it is not (political) art.

Ai Weiwei and Paris Hilton at the opening of Ai’s ‘Er Xi, Air de jeux’ at Le Bon Marché Rive Gauche (photo © Say Who, courtesy Le Bon Marché) (click to enlarge)

Sipping Moët at the opening made this elegant and ironic playground tolerable, though I forgot to reverently flip the bird at Ai as he was giving television interviews. The lightweight socialite Paris Hilton breezed into his radical-chic installation surrounded by bodyguards. Where was Tom Wolfe now that we could use him, I wondered?

This is Ai’s first visit to Paris since 2003, and his biggest solo project here since a major show at the Jeu de Paume in 2012. In corporate speak, Er Xi strives for resonance, but even as a merger move it lacks the distinctive style needed for effective branding. Ai is the essence of a political firebrand, but his suspended atrium creatures could be part of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. These cute baubles are not what we think of when we consider Ai’s brave political acts and statements (though I give him credit for going to witness the refugee crisis firsthand on the Greek island of Lesbos). What we see here is Ai double-tracking his public image: defining himself through committed political art on the one hand, but on the other demonstrating allegiance to moneyed, brand-conscious commerce.

Installation view of Ai Weiwei’s ‘Er Xi, Air de jeux’ at Le Bon Marché Rive Gauche

The window displays on Rue de Sèvres are the best part of Er Xi. They have the same feel of neurology that drawings sometimes attain. Certain forms and figures are constructed by exposing their bamboo framework, while others are wrapped in white silk. They feature mythological scenes, highlights from Ai’s own oeuvre, and shameful homages to the brilliant, non-commercial art of Marcel Duchamp.

Installation view of Ai Weiwei’s ‘Er Xi, Air de jeux’ at Le Bon Marché Rive Gauche (click to enlarge)

All the pieces in Er Xi are labor-intensive, handcrafted in a studio in Shandong, but extremely lightweight — both literally and conceptually. In the atrium, fairy-like creatures representing mythic characters from the text of Shan Hai Jing (or “Classic of Mountains and Seas”) float above the cosmetics concessions. Adopting the technique of traditional kite-making, Ai selected around 24 characters and mythological creatures to be rendered using the ancient method. Articulated through the flexibility of bamboo sticks and lightweight white silk are moments from epic Chinese tales and popular legends that date back to classical antiquity. The exhibition’s pièce de résistance is a large dragon constructed in four segments snaking through a ground-level gallery.

In the “classy” black-and-white video loop projected near the dragon, Ai is seen inspecting his studio artisans’ fabrication of the bamboo kite creatures. He then recounts how Paris represents a creative haven for the rest of the world: the place of Rimbaud, Apollinaire, the Impressionists, Surrealists, and Dadadists. It’s a gracious tip of the hat, but it also reaffirms that if Ai hopes to join such ranks — and not merely stick a whitewashed version of his self-mythologizing schtick into a window onto that history — he best back off decorating tony department stores and get back to the grittier business of addressing sociopolitical issues.

Installation view of Ai Weiwei’s ‘Er Xi, Air de jeux’ at Le Bon Marché Rive Gauche

Installation view of Ai Weiwei’s ‘Er Xi, Air de jeux’ at Le Bon Marché Rive Gauche (photo © Say Who, courtesy Le Bon Marché)

Installation view of Ai Weiwei’s ‘Er Xi, Air de jeux’ at Le Bon Marché Rive Gauche (photo © Gabriel de la Chapelle, courtesy Le Bon Marché)

Installation view of Ai Weiwei’s ‘Er Xi, Air de jeux’ at Le Bon Marché Rive Gauche

Installation view of Ai Weiwei’s ‘Er Xi, Air de jeux’ at Le Bon Marché Rive Gauche

Installation view of Ai Weiwei’s ‘Er Xi, Air de jeux’ at Le Bon Marché Rive Gauche

Ai Weiwei’s Er Xi, Air de jeux remains on view at Le Bon Marché Rive Gauche (24 Rue de Sèvres, 7th arrondissement, Paris) through February 20.

Joseph Nechvatal

Joseph Nechvatal is an artist whose computer-robotic assisted paintings and computer software animations are shown regularly in galleries and museums throughout the world. In 2011 his book Immersion Into Noise was published by the University...

19 replies on “Paris Department Store Kite Display Marks New Low for Ai Weiwei”

  1. Not everything must carry a political agenda. Is there anything wrong with something fun and kitsch that everyone can enjoy? Maybe we need a bit more of that and a little less of everyone trying to push their own political agenda.

    1. well i think the issue is that Weiwei has used his political stance as the cornerstone of his art. When you take away the politics he reveals that he is and has aways been a lightweight.

      1. No, he used his political persecution as the cornerstone of his art… and since he hit it big he has been on a magpie search since to find something to make work about besides the now rather pointless and futile efforts of the Chinese government.

  2. This piece is overly hostile and makes it seem like Ai Wei Wei’s participation here diminishes his “more serious” art. Who says he can’t do some commissions on the side? Both types of practices can coexist.

  3. Another demension to the work that is not discussed here is the context of Ai’s work in the context of the place that it is located. In short, my opinion is that there are other demensions not discussed here that should have been considered in terms of an actual critique, of which this is. In some ways this can be a poignant fuck off for the Chinese govt by Ai. Consider the way that he is whole heartedly collaborating with the birthplace of the freeworld and the free market. Consider Chinese official, who thinks Ai’s work should only celebrate the state, reviewing this new collaboration. I say keep it coming, the works are on par. Should Ai only show work in commercial coorporate spaces from here on? In some ways I completely disagree with this article. It presupposes a lot about art, its place. Where it is best and where it is not best.

  4. So this is how you shut up a political dissident artist. You offer him money.
    He won’t follow the Chinese government instructions regarding his art, but he’ll follow a department store’s. Quite a rebel.

    1. Ghosts can be anything from an invisible presence to translucent or barely visible wispy shapes, to realistic forms. What I saw was 3D illustrations of literary characters held in suspension. It works as sucker money magnet.

    1. Charles, Ai has become a travelling circus, making nothing himself, other than issuing self-serving propaganda, swanning around in the multiverse—the centres of cool in the art world, rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous… The servants, who most probably make all his installations are sure to benefit from this piece of protest art.

  5. Dear Joseph Nechvatal,

    If we are to accept the notion that the work of Ai Weiwei is largely purposed to elicit some sort of ‘political’ response — in harmony with some people/governments, and in dissonance with others — then surely, by your response — which is largely dissonant — you have fulfilled the tenets of that notion. THAT, I would suggest, leaves little to complain about.

    Nevertheless, you have a publication to add to your resume.

      1. I didn’t say you ‘can’t’ complain, merely that you are left with “little to complain about.” And with your reply, irrelevantly, that’s pretty much what you have done.

        Nevertheless, it’s fun (entertaining) reading your responses to each of the comments.

  6. so it’s OK and even amazing that David Bowie reinvented himself every new album, but a “real” artist is not allowed to change his spots?

    1. No one stopped either person from jumping around. But I lost interest in Bowie after Ziggy Stardust (see: whitehotmagazine.com/articles/bowie-at-philharmonie-de-paris/3216 ). Each manifestation of an artist work can (and should) be judged on its own merits – or lack thereof. Particularly in this case, as Ai Weiwei is coming from the political art area where judging and making ethical alliances is crucial. In this department store context: Ai Weiwei = Tom Ford – a brand name – and may be judged as such. So, of course change in an artist’s work is permitted (can you say Picasso). It just is not an absolute good in every case.

      1. i can see your point. you obviously have very strong opinions about what this artist should be doing. It sounds like you admired him, and now you believe he has betrayed you.

  7. Yes both practices can coexist. Why shouldn’t he be paid for this more light hearted work? He continues to work politically—an artist of utmost integrity.

    1. Of course they can and of course he should. But I went to see a new piece by AWW and what I encountered was good crowd-pleasing corporate scenic ornamentation. So it was a conceptual disappointment within the post Charlie Hebdo, Hyper-Kosher, Bataclan, 13 November, Parisian political context.

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