After three years of trekking back and forth to Ai Weiwei’s studio in Beijing, armed with expensive bottles of Italian red wine, gallerist Elisabetta Cipriani finally persuaded the artist to work with her. It was not easy; at first he wasn’t keen, dealing as he does with weightier themes, but Cipriani’s charm, and her roster of artist collaborators, among them Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, Carlos Cruz-Diez and Giorgio Vigna, persuaded him.
Last week, the results of the pair’s efforts went on show at the Mayfair gallery that Cipriani founded six years ago. ‘Rebar in Gold’ consists of two 24 carat gold strips, each 20cm and 60 cm long that are soft enough to be moulded into a bracelet by the wearer. (With his bear-like grip, Weiwei manipulated Cipriani‘s own piece with ease, though less statuesque wearers may struggle).
Engraved with indents and markings, each gold strip is designed to reference the twisted steel rods that appear in his seminal work, Straight, currently on show at the Royal Academy. In it, Weiwei places 200 tonnes of contorted steel rebar, salvaged from the scene of the Wenchuan earthquake in Sichuan province in 2008, on the floor. The work commemorates the 70,000 people who perished largely due to the poor construction techniques in the region.
Since 2009, Cipriani, a former curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Rome, has worked with 17 artists to make limited edition jewellery pieces. ‘I am thankful to Ai for choosing Straight as the basis of the project. Although simple in appearance, the bracelets have a strong and meaningful concept, which to me is what an artist’s 'jewel' should have,’ says Cipriani.
Weiwei took charge of everything from sourcing the gold, right down to the design of the elegant wooden and glass cabinets in which the pieces are displayed. ‘He put a lot of energy into this project,’ says Cipriani, ‘and although I did approach him, ultimately, I believe, he chose me.’