Ai Weiwei at Le Bon Marché

Ai Weiwei’s largest Paris exhibition to date is not at one of the city’s famed galleries but the Bon Marché department store. We speak to the artist and the retailer about the show and how it came about

The idea of inviting Ai Weiwei to exhibit as a guest artist at Paris’s Le Bon Marché Rive Gauche was, says the department store’s creative director Frédéric Bodenes, an audacious one. Previous invited artists included Guy Bourdin, Martin Parr, and Karl Lagerfeld, all of whom have a link to fashion, but Ai Weiwei, with his high profile political activism and his cult status as an artist, seemed out of reach.

Bodenes tentatively broached the idea to Le Bon Marché’s CEO, Patrice Wagner, whose response was, “Il faut osé.” (We have to dare.).

A heavy user of social media, Ai Weiwei was easy to reach by Twitter. Initial discussions took place on Skype then, as his travel is curtailed by the Chinese government, Bodenes and Wagner travelled to China to meet the artist in his Beijing studio to discuss the project further.

According to Bodenes, Ai Weiwei didn’t need much persuasion to accept the invitation as he has a deep attachment to Paris. His father, the poet Ai Qing, came to Paris in 1930 aged 19 to study art. Despite being an active Communist Party member in Paris, Ai Qing was immediately arrested on his return to China and imprisoned as an enemy of the people. He and his family were deported to the Gobi desert where they lived in exile for 20 years.

Ai Weiwei spent his first five years in captivity with his father, who told his small son about Balzac, Apollinaire and Rimbaud, and the freedom he experienced living in Paris. His father had been so stimulated by the atmosphere of freedom in Paris that “he couldn’t make his brain stop thinking. He used to run up and down the stairs to try to tire it out”.

Bon Marche 17 01 16 - Mr Ai Weiwei - vernissage Expo ER XI Ai Weiwei- copyright Say Who
Ai Weiwei at the opening of ER XI. Photo: Say Who

“We’re standing in a very different Paris today,” says Ai Weiwei, “but I hope I can contribute some images and forms to this great city.”

The exhibition, which remarkably is Ai Weiwei’s first in France, is entitled ER XI (Child’s Play) and ties in with the store’s annual White Sale. It features  kite-sculptures drawn from the two thousand year old Chinese myths and legends, Shanhai Jing, Classic of Mountains and Seas.

“There’s not a Chinese person alive that doesn’t know at least part of these tales,” Ai Weiwei says. “Mythology is a parallel reality, it’s a way of confronting our past. The past is a ghost. We have to find ways of connecting with it. Myths are a poetic way of helping us reinterpret our past and make sense of the present. My own life seems like a myth to me. Things have happened to me that I can barely believe.”

ER XI by Ai Weiwei at Bon Marché. Photo: Gabriel de la Chapelle
ER XI by Ai Weiwei at Bon Marché. Photo: Gabriel de la Chapelle

Ai Weiwei travelled to Shandong to the best kitemaker in China, Mr Wong Yong Xun, to make the 23 giant deities.

“We had to find a visual language adaptable to the Bon Marché, one that wouldn’t perturb the everyday running of the store,” he says. “The materials we used are noble and elegant, too: rice paper, bamboo and silk. But they’re not used to working in 3D or at this scale. This is also the first time I have realized sculptures of this dimension. They had to cut bamboo into very thin strips. Bamboo is supple, but it can only be worked in one direction or it will snap. It was very delicate work. Then, they had to be air-freighted to Paris – transportation was very costly.” As Ai Weiwei could not travel back and forth to Paris while the exhibition was being mounted, he saw it for the first time only after it was in place in the store.

Ai Weiwei at Bon Marché. Photo: Say Who
Ai Weiwei at Bon Marché. Photo: Say Who
ER XI by Ai Weiwei at Bon Marché. Photo: Say Who
ER XI by Ai Weiwei at Bon Marché. Photo: Say Who

Twenty-three ethereal sculptures of mythological creatures in bamboo and rice paper are suspended from Bon Marché’s atrium’s ceiling, illuminated from inside by LED lights. The escalators carry visitors up closer to their level. A bamboo and silk dragon is placed on the ground floor gallery, while the ten storefront display windows recount more contemporary and autobiographical incidents of the artist’s life.

Says Bodenes, “I’ve been a huge fan of Ai Weiwei for years. Very few artists bring so much emotion. It is important to him to bring happiness to people. He’s exceedingly generous. The fact that this exhibition is free to everyone was a very important factor to him.”

ER XI by Ai Weiwei at Bon Marché. Photo: Gabriel de la Chapelle
ER XI by Ai Weiwei at Bon Marché. Photo: Gabriel de la Chapelle
ER XI by Ai Weiwei at Bon Marché. Photo: Gabriel de la Chapelle
ER XI by Ai Weiwei at Bon Marché. Photo: Gabriel de la Chapelle

Is Ai Weiwei happy with the result? “Very. It’s my homage to this city. I’ve a deep and happy association with it.”

Surrounded as it is by brands in this famous department store, does the artists think he now is a brand too? “Maybe. A brand for freedom of thought and liberalism? Maybe. I think so. It is the duty of every artist to be an activist.”

ER XI by Ai Weiwei at Bon Marché. Photo: Say Who
ER XI by Ai Weiwei at Bon Marché. Photo: Say Who

Lead image: Ai Weiwei at Le Bon Marché. Photo: Quentin Labail

Ai Weiwei ER XI is at Le Bon Marché Rive Gauche, 24 rue de Sèvres 75007 Paris until February 20

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