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Ai Weiwei is one third of the creative team which has designed the 12th summer pavilion for London’s Serpentine Gallery in Kensington Gardens, but the artist was glaringly absent from its unveiling.
The 54-year-old artist is still not allowed to leave China following his arrest and detention last year. In lieu of the real thing, the gallery screened a message from Ai in which he expressed gratitude for the invitation to renew a collaboration with the Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron.
“I have worked with Herzog and de Meuron on several projects,” said Ai. “We have very good communication and each collaboration is very meaningful.”
The pavilion unveiled on the gallery’s small lawn is a landscape in cork. Visitors walk down cork floors beneath the lawn and can sit on cork mushroom-shaped chairs. Above them is a floating platform roof which collects water and becomes a mirror, reflecting the changes in the London sky.
The pavilion has become one of the most interesting annual architecture commissions and has seen designs by superstar names including Zaha Hadid, Oscar Niemeyer, Frank Gehry and, last year, Peter Zumthor. This being Olympic year, the Serpentine chose to invite the three men responsible for the Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing.
In a design statement, Ai Weiwei and Herzog & de Meuron said they wanted to investigate the 11 pavilions which had gone before them “like a team of archaeologists”.
Ai said: “As an artist, I am always very interested to put art, design, architecture and social change together to make new possibilities. For this Serpentine pavilion, we tried to study what happened before and we also asked ourselves why we need to make a new design for this event. We focused on memory and the past. We made a study to dig into the meaning of this total act and from that a very interesting result came out, which I think gives this pavilion a new meaning.”
Jacques Herzog said they were extremely pleased with the result given they only had a few weeks to get it up. “Some times small works require as much energy on the part of the designers and creators as large works and for us it has always been very important that we work on different scales.
“It is not new for us to work with Ai, we’ve been involved with projects with him for 10 years. It is a natural thing. Okay, working via Skype is not ideal but because we have such a friendship we can do it and it felt good.
“It is nice that we can reflect the sky of London, which is so lively.”
The Serpentine’s director, Julia Peyton-Jones, said it was something of an achievement to get the pavilion up after the rain in April. It opens to the public on Saturday and will be in place for three months as a venue for events, talks and a fundraising party. The pavilion has been bought by the steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal and his wife Usha. They will take ownership at the end of the summer.
Ai has become a symbol for human rights activists in China since spending 81 days in custody last year – much of it incommunicado – on tax avoidance charges many say are trumped up.
He is able to work but not yet leave China, and his ordeal has had the opposite effect to which the Chinese authorities wanted, with Time Magazine naming him runner up in their Person of the Year list and Art Review placing him first in its Power 100list last year.
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