Two creative people in two different fields in one wide-ranging conversation. This time: the artist and the architect.
12 Feb 2019 | Jori Finkel | New York Times Style
In 2011, Chinese authorities detained the artist Ai Weiwei at a Beijing airport, seizing his passport, laptops and hard drives from his studio and imprisoning him for 81 days without formal charges. The allegation was “economic crimes,” but many saw it as retaliation for his persistent criticism of oppressive government policies, whether investigating the names of the schoolchildren who died in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake or his 2009 documentary surrounding the kangaroo-court trial of the human rights activist Tan Zuoren.
In 2015, the government returned Ai’s passport, and ever since, the artist, 61, has been an unusually frequent flier. For his 2017 documentary, “Human Flow,” he visited 23 countries, including Afghanistan and Greece, to explore the international refugee crisis. And last year, from his current base in Berlin, he flew back and forth to Los Angeles, preparing a trio of exhibitions, including one that marked the debut of Jeffrey Deitch’s eponymous gallery, which opened in L.A. in September.
That space was designed by Frank Gehry, perhaps the only architect whose fame rivals Ai’s. Long based in Los Angeles, Gehry has made a major mark on his hometown, starting with his 1978 remodel of his own house using chain-link and galvanized, corrugated steel. But his irreverent buildings, the most iconic of which are clad in aluminum titanium or stainless steel, have also defined other cities — like a branch of the Guggenheim Bilbao, with swooping walls that echo the sailboats in the harbor nearby.
For Deitch’s gallery, Gehry, 89, transformed a 15,000-square-foot former movie-lighting warehouse in Hollywood into a bright exhibition space. Ai then filled the gallery with a series of Chinese zodiac-themed works made out of Legos and a sweeping installation, first shown in 2014: a mass of nearly 6,000 antique wooden stools, scavenged from antique furniture dealers in China, which together — scuffed and dinged but sturdy — serve as a sort of group portrait of the generations of Chinese families who used them.
Along with making art on the scale of architecture, Ai has also had a history of designing buildings. He collaborated with the architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron in its 2008 design for Beijing’s Olympic stadium, which is known as the Bird’s Nest for its innovative bowl-like form, and recently designed an art gallery in Beverly Hills for the United Talent Agency. Likewise, Gehry is an architect who has made sculpture and functional sculpture, including his memorable Formica-and-metal fish lamps.
The two met for a conversation at Deitch’s gallery this past November to talk about art, architecture and their shared history as cultural renegades.
Ai Weiwei: It was amazing to visit your studio last month. It’s like walking through a city — all those miniatures from your early buildings to your latest projects. I see you like a young kid running through the city. You’re not a typical architect. You’re not really in the circle but always trying to break through the circle.
Frank Gehry: I like some of the people in the circle, but I never see them much. I always thought that you belonged to Herzog & de Meuron.
AW: I never belonged to anyone, but we did have an interesting project together: our 2008 Olympic stadium in Beijing.
FG: It was a great project, and I think it’s our one connection to each other before now. We were developing technology with a leader in the French aerospace industry, Dassault Systèmes, and we felt that from that we were able to do things more freely, like the curves of Bilbao, with no cost increase. So when your Bird’s Nest was being built, some of the engineers working for you at the time contacted us, and we helped them with the weird connections.
AW: When I see your earlier work, the models that look like you crumpled up a piece of paper that you were going to throw out, I think that’s a breakthrough — quite revolutionary considering traditional architecture doesn’t teach that way. You really liberated the form.
FG: You know, I grew up in the art world — this was the way I wanted to work, more hands-on, sort of like the way you work. You pick up materials, you put them somewhere, you make things. I always felt that it was more direct, more human, more related to the body. In the late ’60s and early ’70s I saw all the artists in L.A. doing things, like Larry Bell and Billy Al Bengston, Charles Arnoldi and Ed Ruscha. Everybody was working very freely and I emulated that, I loved that. So you had a sense of freedom, you didn’t have to make apologies for doing it. It was just hard for the clients of an architect to accept that. Now developers charge a premium for our work. But you have a whole other economic thing with galleries.
AW: I can go through a gallery, but it’s not necessary. A gallery is just a structure that you use because you don’t want to make all those deals or meet all those collectors. It’s not necessary. It’s not like a building, which has to be paid for by some developer. Artworks don’t have to be sold. A poet doesn’t have to sell his poetry, nobody has to buy it.
FG: I think it’s important to find that sweet spot in architecture, too, to make it happen like that.
AW: But architecture is very limited because you have so many practical and financial restrictions — you have that developer to think about.
FG: You have all that, but I say, “And then what?” You have to look at it this way: You solve all the economic issues. You solve the safety of the building. You solve the acceptance by the building department. You solve all of those things. And then what? It’s the “then what” that I’m interested in. What else can the building give you? And when you do that, the people that hired you are beneficiaries of it. Like in Bilbao, the building cost $100 million, but it’s raised much more since it opened. There was no way to have predicted that. And when I look at the building, personally I have all kinds of criticisms of it — I can’t understand why they like it so much.
AW: I’ve never been to the museum, but I hear people say the internal spaces are really well designed. So you’re lucky. You made good mistakes.
FG: Bilbao was done [in 1997] with an interesting provocation from Tom Krens [then the Guggenheim director]. Tom said, “For the artists who are dead and can’t defend themselves, I want you to make rectilinear galleries; for the artists who are alive, I want you to make provocatively shaped galleries.” Sol LeWitt, Anselm Kiefer, Jenny Holzer — all these great artists came in and took on the galleries that were not rectilinear. Artists told me they felt secure because it wasn’t perfect, so it felt like an invitation to play.
AW: What I hate most are the white-box situations at museums, because they don’t have any meaning. I think that architecture and art have to coexist. You can use a basement — or shopping mall or prison — because it challenges and creates contradictions with the art. Like when I had a show in 2016 at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, Italy, which usually shows older work. They had their windows covered for years. So I asked them to open the windows to let the light in and expose the original architectural elements like the fireplace. “What’s wrong with the fireplace?” I said. “I’d love to have the memory to play against.” And the 2014 show we had at Alcatraz, you couldn’t touch the prison walls, you couldn’t hang anything. It was really strict, but I think freedom comes from those restrictions.
FG: So why did you pick Legos to work with?
AW: When I was working on Alcatraz, we got a lot of photos of these political prisoners from Amnesty International that were not clear or were very dark. Some political prisoners may have had only one photo from their life before they disappeared, like this Tibetan lama who has been missing for over 20 years. How am I going to use these photos to make a show when the quality isn’t there? I thought Legos would be a good idea to even it all out because it’s pixels — pixels will make everything, clear or not, sharp: a strong image. So we made 176 portraits of political prisoners, from Chelsea Manning to people in Iran and Russia and China, and they all looked fresh and clear.
FG: I met with the guy who owns Lego years ago; I wanted to discuss the possibility of doing a new kind of Lego.
AW: Another kind of Lego sounds interesting. You can see, if you walk on the streets of most cities, all the buildings are the same. All the cars are designed the same. Why does it have to be that way? It’s such a waste. A society based on artists could be trouble, but a society without artists could be really horrifying.
FG: When I started in architecture, I was aware that I was coming into a world where the cities were being built quick and ugly, and there was a lot of denial. People hated it, but they didn’t seem to care they were doing it. I was curious about how you connect to that denial, so I picked the worst material that everyone really hates, chain-link, and said, “What if I tried to take chain-link and make it part of the art, part of the beauty? What if it became more positive?”
AW: When the China Academy of Art offered their first architecture course, they invited me to be their first teacher for this class. Instead of asking them to build with bricks, I asked the students to look at things we throw away. I said, “Let’s start with plastic bottles or Coca-Cola bottles. How can you use the logic of a material to structure something?”
FG: Now people are realizing all this plastic is dangerous to our health.
AW: So the true art or architecture practice is very political, in that sense, because it goes against some common mediocre thinking. It tries to walk in different directions.
FG: I know you as such a force of good in the world, who has suffered a lot in regimes and fought hard through many years of difficulty. About 60 percent of my work now is philanthropy, trying to bring people together through the arts. But it’s not as confrontational as what you’ve been doing, getting arrested and all. I’ve only spent one night in jail, for marijuana.
AW: How much did you have in your possession?
FG: I had too much. It was a felony at the time.
AW: Were you selling or were you smoking?
FG: Neither. I was going to take out this girl from a rock band, and she said she wanted some marijuana. So a friend brought over a bag, it said “For Frankie” on it. I put it in my jacket pocket, I went on the date, offered her the stuff, and she said she didn’t want it. I drove on the freeway to go home and I was sleepy, so I was falling asleep, driving and weaving the car, and the police stopped me.
AW: It sounds like a setup.
FG: No, it wasn’t. It was crazy. So they searched the car and didn’t find anything, and then my jacket was lying on the back seat and they found this bag.
AW: But it’s not your jacket, right?
FG: It was in my jacket.
AW: But it’s not your jacket, right?
FG: [Laughs] I didn’t think of saying that at the time. It fit me. So they put me in jail for the night.
AW: Have you ever designed a jail? It would be nice to design a jail.
FG: I visited a women’s jail in L.A. that has 12 women to a cell, with six beds on one side. One toilet for 12 women and the top bunk has a fluorescent light on top. I don’t know how that woman sleeps, the light is on 24 hours. I think with our jails, if you’re not a real criminal when you go in, when you go out, you are.
AW: I think most jails are like that. They teach you how to be cruel.
This interview has been edited and condensed.