A brief encounter with Ai Weiwei

Artist Ai Weiwei brought his usual frank honesty plus insights on art, politics and life to a recent press conference to promote his collaboration with DIY brand Hornbach. CR editor Eliza Williams was there to bear witness

Press conferences come in a number of forms but there are some typical qualities that you usually expect: light snacks, some sort of liquid refreshment, and for the participants to stay firmly on message throughout.

They can feel very controlled events, pleasant but transactional – journalists get access to the quotes and copy they need for an article and the PRs get their required publicity. The holy grail for the journos taking part is for a participant to veer a little off piste, and happily so it was with Ai Weiwei, when he recently launched his unlikely but interesting collaboration with the DIY brand Hornbach.

It was an unusual event from the start – hosted in Ai’s studio in Berlin (the artist has recently moved to the UK but still maintains this German space), which is within a vast and cavernous warehouse, filled as you might expect with examples of his art. This was apparently the first time he has held a launch like this for journalists there and it was packed.

In the preamble, Ai Weiwei sat around doing perfectly normal things such as looking at his phone and we all desperately photographed him in the act, a bit like watching an animal in the zoo. He got his revenge for this in the end, however, by turning the tables and photographing those journalists lucky enough to have a few minutes chat with him, and putting them all up on his Instagram feed for his 500k plus followers.