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.
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.
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.
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.