The social subversion and improvement of the relationship– Ai Weiwei’s “Fairytale”

Yi-Jun Jiang

Contemporary Art 701

November 14, 2018

In this paper, I discuss the influence of Ai Weiwei’s art piece “Fairytale”on the relationship among participants, citizens and artist himself in Documents in Kassel in 2007. Ai Weiwei was born in Beijing in 1957. He is China’s most recognized contemporary artist and had made a significant impact on China and the world Most of the works of art were conceptual works adapted from ready-made objects. In the 12th German Kassel Documents Exhibition, artist Ai Weiwei brought along 1,001 Chinese tourists to participate in this annual art event. The fund was co-financed by three Swiss foundations and the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs, totaling $4.14 million. Fairy Tales was awarded the exhibition for its high cost of free invitation to 1,001 tourists and its participation in art, society and state organization.

In the artworks under public examination here, the piece appears cutting-edge, sensational, inviting, puzzling, and pathetic allowing an empathetic contact with the viewer’s body. The “Fairytale”was the largest and most controversial project at the conference. The whole city, the small German town of Kassel, became a stunning platform for art and important chemistry happened such as the behaviors from the participants and the interaction with the locals. “Fairytale”attracts people’s attention. In addition to a large amount of public discussion, it also contains various elements of social interaction formed by participants and citizens.

Here I want to analyze the development and growth of “Fairytale”, and the artworks have become unpredictable and uncontrollable existence. Ai Weiwei in Fairytale said “This is a work I emotionally relate to. It grows and it surprised me.”[1]As I cited the quote, the artist himself expressed the traits of uncontrolled growth and unpredictable outcome between the participants and citizens and those words are the base of my arguments come from. By means of subversion and improvement, the relationship between the whole society has undergone three impacts as a result of the visiting of Chinese people and reaction from local citizens.


The process of subversion and improvement of the perspective and relationship between visiting Chinese and local citizens has gone through three cycles. The whole social work “Fairytale”is an experiment. According to C. Bishop’s Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics (2004), Bourriaud, the former curator of Bordeaux CAPC and editor of Documentation and Art magazine, advocates relational aesthetics and identifies the characteristics of Relational Aesthetics. One of the traits is to display contemporary art as a “laboratory”. The concept of “laboratory”serves as an example of relational aesthetics, in which case the museum becomes more than just a place to exhibit arts. “Related to the project-based laboratory tendency is the trend toward inviting contemporary artists to design or troubleshoot amenities within the museum,such as the bar (Jorge Pardo at K21, Düsseldorf[2]; Michael Lin at the Palais de Tokyo[3]; Liam Gillick at the Whitechapel Art Gallery[4]) or reading lounge (Apolonia Sustersic at Kunstverein Munich[5], or the changing “Le Salon” program at the Palais de Tokyo), and in turn present these as works of art. ”[6]In the case of “Fairytale”, the museum had become a tourist attraction for both Chinese participants and local citizens.

For those 1,001 Chinese visitors in “Fairytale”, they lived in two old red brick factories mill, that Ai Weiwei has been converted into a temporary dormitory. In fact, those two old red brick factories used to be a place to manufacture Volkswagen cars. From mottled walls, people can the old ages of the buildings. However, they are temporary homes of many Chinese for Ai Weiwei’s project. “Home”is described by German media as “battlefield hospital”because the setting of the shelter was very close to hospitals (fig. 1). It is divided into two floors, one for boys and the other for girls. Each floor is divided into 10 large rooms by white cotton and hemp curtain. Each room has 10 iron beds. The head of the iron bed is an F-shaped beam. Perhaps this is a special measurement for “Fairytale”. Everything here was customized. Ai Weiwei also said in the interview that he personally selected and designed everything here, from suitcases, sheets, T-shirts to eating bowls. Those elements contained images of China society made a comparison between the western fairytale-like Kassel.

However, those 1,001 Chinese people do not have to live in the factory nor wear the tourist uniforms and the accessories designed for them. In addition, these participants can roam freely in the streets of Kassel City. This approach ensures that Chinese tourists are not exploited as living objects of art, but rather encourages the community to interact with people, thus enabling the citizens of Kassel City to participate in Chinese tourists. Because of the absence of instruction and rules, accidental and unexpected results formed by the interaction between audience and participants has broken the deep-rooted stereotype in people’s hearts. Interestingly, characteristics from different people of different background caused. They comefrom different regions of China and have different social standards, including farmers, laid-off workers, street vendors, ethnic minorities, students, rock singers, and white-collar workers. Some of them danced and sang with the locals, some of them visited, praised, and judged those artworks in the museum, and some of them elaborated that their expectation of fictional fairytale-like Kasselchanged after saw the reality.

One female participant, named Bai, who was also an artist from Songzhuang, Beijing. This time she came to Kassel, and she brought her own art of action, the little match girl,a short story by Danish poet and author Hans Christian Andersen (fig. 2). The story is about a young impoverished girl trying to sell matches on the street on New Year’s Eve who is afraid to go home without selling enough for fear of an abusive father. Every day, Mrs. Bai wears her own homemade clothes, a white gown, on which she writes a big scarlet letter “peddler”, takes her homemade matches and goes to the literature exhibition hall to set up a stall. In particular, the match-pole is made of white bamboo chopsticks, and matches are made of red thread. Every match sold for three euros. On the first day, Ms. Bai sold six matches and earned 18 euros. Everyone was envious of it. It was so easy to cheat money on art by using the reputation from Ai Weiwei. Then She thought she should be an artist just like Ai Weiwei.

In the eyes of the public, they were surprised by the fact that Kassel was part of the 1001 project. The number of tourists in China is increasing rapidly, and the public has misunderstood the reasons behind it. In fact, the citizens did not care if those Chinese are part of the project. They just saw some interesting people. The local business dealers had heard Chinese people are poor so they did not expect those Chinese people purchased goods in Kassel. In fact, the truth was the opposite. One lady even invited the participant to her own garden. A couple of citizens said surprisingly some scenes which are ordinary or even ugly for them is special enough for the participants to take the picture.

The Kassels are friendly and hospitable. Anyone wearing a “fairy tale” USB bracelet can take a free bus to the exhibition hall, and there is no need to buy tickets to the exhibition hall. When eight gates from China made by Ai Weiwei and the participant collapsed, many people marveled that it was more charming and more like a work of art than when it did not collapse (fig. 3). On the notice board of the dormitory, there are many collective activities organized by local organizations or individuals in the name of “Fairytale” to get in touch with the organizing committee: learning to waltz, beach party, visiting the exhibition of Kassel College, etc. In these activities, some activities that experience the local German life have been favored by everyone. During the exhibition, cultural development and communication continued to form and accumulate.


Ai Weiwei used the symbolic to emphasize meaning behind the application objects to strengthen the relationship between participants and citizens. Kassel is most widely known for the Green brothers, the famous local fairytale family. Ai Weiwei named the project Fairytale, which was based on the Greens Brothers and illustrated the spirit of the journey.Unlike traditional well-known fairy tales which contain happy ending and conclusion, “Fairytale” was an unpredictable and uncontrollable creation of artists themselves in the exhibition. No one knew what those experiences would bring through the whole process. Not even for the artist who was the designer, the director, the curator, and the creator. Hence, “Open Ended” serves an important trait for the development and growth of “Fairytale”. Based onAntagonism and Relational Aesthetics, a “laboratory” paradigm should be “Work that is open-ended, interactive, and resistant to closure, often appearing to be “work-in-progress” rather than a completed object. “[7]

He used tools, 1,001 chairs, suitcases, and USB bracelets, to create symbols that constitute historical memory and special status(fig. 4). These symbols that attest to their status are linked to a self-confidence and sense of pride.The placement of these chairs is very meaningful. They are not like the exhibits, they are circled and named “works”. It’s for tourists to take a nap, listen to tour guides, or watch video installations. All in all, these chairs provide a rest for visitors and point to other works (fig. 5). If the Chinese who participated in Fairytale are not only works, but also audiences, and even some authors, then these chairs are not only functional commodities but also works of art for people to enjoy. Fairytale melt those artificial boundaries.

An Interesting phenomena came along with the design which based on the settlement of chairs. The 1001 ancient chairs, like the 1001 Chinese people, are freely and casually placed in every exhibition hall of the Kassel Documentation Exhibition(fig. 6). While they are displayed, they are convenient for visitors. The ancient Chinese furnishings are in sharp contrast with the contemporary and European-style exhibitions. This also makes many foreign art lovers stop to watch them, and even more. How can we have it in many ways? What is important is that chairs are similarto the participants and the citizens. Ai Weiwei created a phenomenon is that s are both the audience and viewers. This kind of phenomena should be explained by using the Chinese Taoist philosophy which described the duality of Yin and Yang: everything has two sides and the whole exists in harmony. [8]Yanhua Zhou analyzed Ai Wei’s work Fairy Tales and elaborate “the three principles of Chinese Taoist philosophy — the duality of Yin and Yang, the vitality of Yin and Yang and the concept of “uselessness” and participants and citizens are interesting phenomena of the audience.”[9]

The number “1=1,001,” also contained symbols. Like the logo “1=1,001,” is written because every person’s experience, statues, and imagination are the most pivotal and are irreplaceable. These tourists are not only tour groups but also Ai Weiwei’s artistic theme, the viewer of foreign culture, as well as the symbol of others. Just as art can inspire audiences and participants, so is the artist himself. These environments and social settlements serve as a platform for audiences to open up stereotypes of negotiation and expectations and accompanying exotic and unexpected feelings. In other words, “relational works of art seek to establish contact (literally or potentially) between subjects, in which meaning is collectively stated.” Bourriaud said. The statement is very close to the idea that Ai Weiwei valued Fairytale is more person-orientated which pay attention to personal experience and individual awareness.


Ai Weiwei used social media and news to challenge authorities and to spread his idea. To organize the piece, Ai posted words on his blog in February that he would offer a free trip to Germany, and within three days the number of registered people had already exceeded his target.The 1,001 individuals whose visas have been approved will be divided into five groups that from June 12th on will leave in stages for Kassel; each group will remain there on average for eight days.The whole group is divided into two hundred groups and arrives at the same time. Despite a large number of people, Ai Weiwei still consulted and interviewed everyone, and compiled a questionnaire with 99 questions, mostly focusing on personal life course, desires, and dreams. By just adding exotic Chinese tourist to German, Kassel the face of the landscape changed rapidly during the exhibition. Just over one month’s time after Documents in Kassel, quite a few Asian faces will be appearing in Kassel, a city with 250,000 residents.

The arrangement of sending 1,001 Chinese participants into Kassel not only caused the changing of the landscape,but also triggered the changing of international attitude toward Ai Weiwei, his work, and Chinese people. “Fairytale” is widely reported by international news. He considers it to be a means of locating contemporary practice within the culture at large: relational art is seen as a direct response to the shift from goods to a service-based economy. It is also seen as a response to the virtual relationships of the Internet and globalization.“Ai Weiwei focused on the individual experience of life as citizens of a Communist country where the importance of the individualism non-existent.” [10]This kind of attitude is an obvious challenge for China authorities. “Fairytale” did use this controversy to create the discussion.On the other side, the Germany government’s attitude toward his project is very positive. “ My first impression of him was that he is very warm-hearted. He was sitting opposite me. I think he’s a very personable man, who is willing to actively integrate into the city. He doesn’t spend his time isolated in some glass house but lives in the city center. He seems to be having a very pleasant time here in Kassel. As mayor of the city, I feel very good about that.”[11]

At the beginning ofthe ideation and process, Ai Weiwei said that he didn’t know what he was about to show in Documenta 12. However, he was sure that he was not going to show a painting or an object. When he saw the tourist from Milan, he immediately decided to bring a lot of Chinese to see the show and also made them as a show. In the interview, he talked about the media “I may put such a very simple thing in an event of so-called contemporary art. That’s how I did it. But because he is 1001 people, has a lot of organizational work, has to cross national boundaries, flying for many hours, living requirements, and has a relationship with contemporary art exhibitions, “these 1001 people eat and drink Lazard every day has a lot of daily human needs, for me, its complexity and details are beyond my imagination. “[12]

Ai Weiwei as a transcultural person and he used those experiences as a key role in establishing his celebrity status. Ai Weiwei has been long critical of different countries such as the US and European authorities. The relationship of different government, experience, problems had built his own identity.

In conclusion, Fairytale was an artwork that grew and evolved over time and it changed relationships between the participants and the citizens, and overall impacted on the artist himself.Seemingly the traits of uncontrolled growth and unpredictable outcome between the participants and citizens made the artwork real and attractive.” The piece is not a rehearsal or prediction for the future.”– Ai Weiwei in Fairytale.[13]

By just making arts, Ai Weiwei built his identity to show who he is and what he is going to create next. Ai noted that “Fairytale” also includes written materials, photos, and a documentary that records the entire event. He said he doesn’t call the piece performance art. Rather, he sees it as a case of “art as field study. “The artwork that made me the most dangerous person in China.”[14] Through the preparation, construction, organization, invitation, interaction with the participants and the citizens. The social subversion and improvement of the relationship had built and formed for both Chinese and German. And also the artist himself had been impacted and grew through this experiment.

[1]Ai Weiwei, “A ‘Fairytale’ Becomes an Artwork,” in Ai Weiwei’s blog: Writings, interviews, and digital rants, 2006–2009, trans. Lee Ambrozy (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2011), 120–125.

[2]The artist Jorge Pardo actuates the respective site of representation and changes the whole effect of an area by means of his brightly colored design can be seen in his spectacular arrangement of the historical turbine hall at Düsseldorf’s Department of Works and the bar at Kaiserteich in the K21 Museum in Düsseldorf.

[3]Michael Lin transforming a communal space, creating an illusion of depth, and erasing spatial borders, Lin alters our perception of volume by producing an effect of infinitude.

[4]The wood-paneled Zilkha Auditorium is a work of art in itself with its colourful seating designed by Turner Prize nominee Liam Gillick. Located at the back of the Gallery, delegates can meander through Galleries 1 or 2 en route to the Auditorium, giving guests time to reflect and be inspired before arriving in this calming space.

[5]Apolonia Sustersic’s conversion of the gallery entrance featured a “work console,” where members of the curatorial staff (including Lind) could take turns manning the gallery’s front desk, continuing their work in public.

[6]ClaireBishop, Antagonism and relational aesthetics. (October 2004): 51–79.

[7]ClaireBishop, Antagonism and relational aesthetics. (October 2004): 51–79.

[8]Yanhua Zhou, “Ai Weiwei’s Fairytale: a unique social engagement,” Journal for Cultural Research21, no. 1 (February 2017): 76–91,

[9]Yanhua Zhou, “Ai Weiwei’s Fairytale: a unique social engagement,” Journal for Cultural Research21, no. 1 (February 2017): 76–91,

[10]Zheng Shengtian, the managing editor of Yishu, “ A conversation with Ai Weiwei,” Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese ArtVolume. 12, no. 6 (November/December 2013): 10–19.

[11]Ai Weiwei, Ai Weiwei: Fairytale (Tong Hua) Documentary DVD

[12]Ai Weiwei, “A ‘Fairytale’ Becomes an Artwork,” in Ai Weiwei’s blog: Writings, interviews, and digital rants, 2006–2009, trans. Lee Ambrozy (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2011), 120–125.

[13]Ai Weiwei, “The Many Dimensions of Ai Weiwei,” interview by Hans Ulrich Obrist, Ways beyond Art, ed. Elena Ochoa Foster (London: Ivory Press, 2009), 26–35.

[14]Ai Weiwei, “A ‘Fairytale’ Becomes an Artwork,” in Ai Weiwei’s blog: Writings, interviews, and digital rants, 2006–2009, trans. Lee Ambrozy (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2011), 120–125.

Fig. 1. Ai Weiwei, , 2007, Objects, Kassel (
Fig. 2. Bai,2007, Performing Art, Kassel (
Fig. 3. Ai Weiwei and Chinese participants,2007, Objects, Kassel (
Fig. 4. Ai Weiwei, 2007, Objects, Kassel (
Fig. 5. Ai Weiwei, , Objects, Kassel (
Fig. 6. Ai Weiwei, 1,001 , 2007, Objects, Kassel (


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