For Émile Zola, the emergence of department stores in the latter half of the 19th century Paris conjured up cathedrals of capitalism. For Ai Weiwei some 130 years later, Le Bon Marché has become a playground for exposing original, traditionally crafted works.
An exhibition within a retail space is a first for the fearless Chinese artist, whose show at the Royal Academy of the Arts ended just last month. Le Bon Marché approached him over a year ago with an invitation to fill the windows and the grand central atrium with creatures and multi-layered scenes, some more familiar than others. Those within the store borrow from Shan Hai Jin ('Classic of the Mountains and the Seas'), a book of myths populated with such hybrids as a turtle-fish, a fish-rooster and a serpent spirit with a human head. Outside, meanwhile, are scenes that attest to Weiwei’s own narrative: surveillance cameras, his notoriously upward-pointing middle finger, his bicycle (which, along with a bottle rack, serves as a nod to Marcel Duchamp) and the three-legged stools from his Venice Biennale installation in 2013. Whereas certain figures expose frameworks of bamboo, others are sheathed in delicate white silk. The production took place in Shandong, where artisans employed traditional kite-making techniques.
According to Le Bon Marché’s artistic director, Frédéric Bodenes, ten members from Weiwei’s team and five from the store’s began the installation on 5 January and assembled the theatrical installation, 'little by little' and mainly during the evenings. A dragon symbolising hope, reassurance and energy was completed not long after the artist arrived in Paris, his first visit since 2003.
In a short film projected across from the dragon installation, Weiwei explains how he set out to link the mythic tales at the heart of Chinese culture with his cultural impressions of Paris, in order to arrive at a contemporary, personal statement. 'What is created is about our new look of the new century,' says the artist in a conversation with Wallpaper*. 'It’s about all the possibilities of imagination.'
The show falls during the store’s 'White Sale', an annual event started by founder Aristide Boucicaut (as Bodenes tells it, the theme of white was the store’s sole request to Weiwei). To see the artist's work against the backdrop of markdowns – not to mention all the multi-brand signage – risks being both visually and conceptually jarring. But the fact that the show’s title, 'Er Xi, Air de Jeu' – meaning 'playground' in both languages – suggests how the exhibition functions more as a folly than a platform to provoke. For Weiwei, who became free to travel in July when Chinese authorities finally returned his passport, displaying his work within a store represents a creatively open-minded idea – one that he was enthusiastic to accept.
'Here, you have a society that has matureness in both the commerce and the culture. And it can be mixed with a much more sophisticated language. China is developed imbalanced-ly. It doesn’t have social critic[ism] or aesthetic discussion or philosophical thinking. If a society misses these parts, development is dangerous because it’s not balanced and doesn’t know where to go.'
Moreover, he insists there’s no incongruity in showing artistic work within a space devoted to luxury consumption – perhaps because, in this case, so many of the works exist in an interpretative, poetic realm. 'I take a readymade like Duchamp’s and make a little taste and then it becomes something else,' he says. 'I think you can use these [ideas] to your benefit.'