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Ai Weiwei finds peace in Portugal: ‘I could throw away all my art and not feel much’



It is a warm, clear spring morning and Ai Weiwei is giving me a tour of the huge new studio he is building about an hour’s drive from Lisbon. There is not another house in sight, just the flat green landscape of the Alentejo, and a big blue sky dotted with darting swallows. The studio, explains the artist, is a replica of his old one in Shanghai, which was finished in 2011 only to be almost immediately demolished by the Chinese authorities: officially, because it contravened planning regulations; unofficially, because of Ai’s outspoken criticism of the government. Months later, the artist was imprisoned for three months then placed under house arrest. When his passport was returned in 2015, he left the country and has not returned since.

“We live in a constantly changing landscape,” says Ai. His has certainly changed more than most people’s. After China, he set up in Berlin but left under a cloud, saying: “Nazism perfectly exists in German daily life today.” He moved on to the UK, where he has had run-ins with immigration authorities. On his first visit, he was initially granted a visa for just 20 days on account of his “criminal conviction” in China.

He still likes Britain, though. His 13-year-old son is at school in Cambridge and Ai visits often. “Britain is like a jacket with many pockets,” he says. “It has a lot. It’s vibrating. But I’m too old for that.” Ai is 65. “When you walk on the street in London, you feel you’re a little bit in the way of the young people. I needed a place to be more peaceful by myself.” He likes the food, weather and people here in Portugal, he says, as we drink tea on the verandah of the farmhouse next to the site of his studio, with a view of his swimming pool and the countryside beyond. Numerous cats and dogs bask and lope around; birds squawk in a nearby cage.

The studio’s jointed timber structure draws on traditional Chinese architecture. It is not an easy job: no nails, no glue and every piece of wood different. “I realised I needed to build something to create enough problems for me to make contact with local construction workers,” he says. Planning permission wasn’t easy either, but he likened the studio to an agricultural warehouse. With a conspiratorial smile, he explains: “When they asked me what I was going to put in it, I said, ‘Sunflower seeds.’”

‘I don’t care about Lego that much’ … Ai Weiwei’s re-creation of Monet’s Water Lilies at the Design Museum.

Ai is referring to one of his best-known works: his spectacular 2010 installation of 100m porcelain sunflower seeds that filled the vast Turbine Hall of London’s Tate Modern. Each seed was handmade and painted in China. The scale of the work and the labour involved seemed inconceivable – yet, the artist pointed out, China’s population is over 10 times that figure.

Overwhelming scale is a constant in Ai’s work, often in combination with a human dimension. In his 2015 exhibition at the Royal Academy in London, he made a powerful installation out of 90 tonnes of steel bars recovered from the rubble left by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, each re-straightened by hand. The work drew attention to the substandard school construction that led to many infant deaths – which angered the authorities. He has also made installations out of thousands of bicycle frames, as well as refugees’ lifejackets recovered from boat crossings to Europe. “It destroys our rationality,” he explains of his use of scale, adding that it opens the doors of perception wider than we can generally comprehend. “Maybe it’s good we only can see so far, only hear certain sounds, only distinguish certain colours.”

Over his 45-year career, Ai has made films and documentaries; he has defaced and destroyed Chinese antiques; he has made jokey sculptures, such as surveillance cameras carved out of marble; and he has designed buildings. For 10 years, in fact, Ai ran a successful architecture company, FAKE. The name is a characteristic play on words: read phonetically in Chinese, fa ke sounds like fuck). “I was the only designer,” he says modestly. “And we created the most primitive type of buildings.” Still, FAKE did more than 60 projects, including his various studios.

All of this makes London’s Design Museum less of a surprising venue for Ai’s latest exhibition. “We’re not presenting him as a designer,” explains curator Justin McGuirk. “We’re presenting him as an artist who has a view on design.”

I’m a big teapot … Left Right Studio Material, an installation of fragments from porcelain sculptures destroyed when Ai’s Beijing studio was demolished.

Ai’s best-known contribution to design was the “Bird’s Nest” stadium, the centrepiece of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, created with Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron. While he finds it hard to explain what exactly he brought to the building, he does say: “Without me there would be no such project. It would be completely different visually and conceptually.” He thought the building should be “totally exposed, so from inside or outside, you can see the same thing, and nothing attached to make it more pretty”.

It could have led to a lucrative side-hustle, but Ai refused to attend the Olympic opening ceremony, dismissing the event as propaganda and closing down FAKE soon after, “because I thought it would ruin my life”. He remains on good terms with Herzog & de Meuron (they later collaborated on the 2011 Serpentine Pavilion) but says: “The relationship only functions when we’re different, otherwise why be together? At that moment, they were eager to find new energy because basically architecture is pretty dry.”

The Design Museum exhibition, called Making Sense, draws from right across Ai’s career, including more of his industrial-yet-human scale installations. These include stone-age tools, smashed pottery from his Beijing studio (that one was demolished by the authorities in 2018), plus some 100,000 cannonballs and 200,000 broken spouts from teapots or jugs – all handmade in ceramic during the Song dynasty, roughly 1,000 years ago. They’re a reminder of how China was a prodigious manufacturing hub, founded on human labour, long before the industrial revolution. They’re also a reminder that Ai collects a lot of stuff: spouts, roots, cannonballs, pets, passport stamps.

Where does he get them all? The broken spouts he began buying at flea markets about 15 years ago. Farmers in Jingdezhen, which has a history of porcelain-making, would dig them up in their fields. As word spread that someone was interested in buying these relatively worthless artefacts, more and more of them came his way, and prices started to rise. “Just like in any market,” he says. “It’s very interesting.”

‘Without me there would be no such project’ … the Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium in Beijing.

He shows me another collection nearby: a mini-forest of twisted, gnarled olive tree roots, requisitioned from neighbouring farmers. “Many things I collect are useless for others,” he says. “But it would be a waste if those things were not being paid attention to. We see everything and we don’t see anything.”

What else is he collecting? “Many things that cannot be exposed,” he says, cryptically. But he gives another example. “One day on Twitter, I see there’s a British factory closing.” This was A Brown & Co in Croydon. “They said, ‘We have 30 tonnes of buttons we have to throw away.’ I said, ‘May I have them?’” Now they’re piled in a huge mound in his Berlin studio. “I still haven’t had the time to think what to do them,” says the artist, who still has all those sunflower seeds, in another warehouse. He’s not sure what to do with them either.

And then there’s Ai’s latest fixation: Lego. The Design Museum show includes a 15-metre reinterpretation of Claude Monet’s Water Lilies, painstakingly hand-assembled from 550,000 coloured Lego bricks. It took 10 workers 100 days to make, in Italy. He shows me a time-lapse video of the process. He is not the first artist to exploit the creative possibilities of Lego, but it is a typically Ai kind of medium. It echoes digital pixellation but also harks back to the earliest eras of art, such as Greek and Roman mosaic, before painting, which became a more “personal” means of interpretation, as demonstrated by artists such as Van Gogh, Rembrandt or indeed Monet. “I don’t care about Lego that much,” he says. “I care about finding a new way to create a two-dimensional surface that can be an illustration and some kind of mass image.”

Having said that, Ai’s relationship with technology is ambivalent. He was an avid and outspoken blogger on Chinese social media in the early 2000s. He still tweets assiduously, although he is no addict. “I only do it in the morning and evening,” he insists. “It’s just funny to watch people’s arguments.”

But he is highly sceptical about artificial intelligence and where it might be leading us: “What you get is all the mediocre ideas mixed into something like a fusion, where there is no character and you avoid all mistakes. That is really dangerous to humanity, because we are all equal but we are all created differently. The difference is the beauty. Art, literature, poetry design – they are rooted in human mistakes, misjudgments, or character differences if you prefer. They should be dangerous and sexy and unpredictable. That’s totally against the AI world.”

‘You are as rich as how much you can spend, not how much you have’ … Ai Weiwei near his farmhouse in Portugal.

Ai has added his own personal element to his Lego Water Lilies. At the centre, he has inserted a square black hole: a reference to the entrance to the underground house in Xinjiang where Ai grew up. He shows me the original photo: it is the screensaver on his phone. His father, the poet Ai Qing, was exiled to Xinjiang during the Cultural Revolution and forced to clean communal toilets for five years. After Mao’s death, the family returned to Beijing, where Ai studied before moving to New York for 12 years. Back in China in the 1990s, his combination of conceptual wit, playful mischief and bold provocation brought him a profile internationally, and a heap of trouble domestically.

Is his impulse to collect driven by his history of displacement and dispossession? He shakes his head firmly. “I hate that. Because in China we have a saying, ‘You’re born as nude as a baby, you die as nude as a baby.’ I grew up in a communist society where you didn’t have private property.”

Despite his criticisms, he still seems to admire his home country’s growing economic strength. “China has become a headache for the west,” he says. But western paranoia over Chinese technology, such as moves by the US and EU to remove TikTok from government devices, is in his view overblown: “Those discussions are really fake. In the larger picture, in a capitalist world, competition is encouraged. But then the west meets a giant like China – whatever it creates, like Alibaba or TikTok, immediately becomes strong and powerful. I think that makes the west jealous.”

Although he is visibly well-off (his house even has a grand piano for his son to practise on when he visits), he says he cares little for possessions. “I have a habit of spending all the money I have. Because I have a theory: you are as rich as how much you can spend, not how much you have.” The same applies to his art: “I could throw away all the works of so-called art I’ve made. I will not feel too much about it. These things coexist with our life, but our life is very short.”

Ai’s love of art is not really about the end result. “I don’t even look at the final product,” he says. “I don’t care about that much. The process is sensuous, it has blood. But the final is just a corpse to me.” As for his new studio, he’s enjoying the process of making it more than the prospect of actually using it. He doesn’t really know how long he’ll stay in Portugal after it’s finished. “I don’t worry so much,” he says. “I enjoy the moment.”

This is the ever-changing landscape of Ai’s life. And if it comes with success and material comforts, it has also entailed persecution, beatings and displacement. He almost makes it sound like it’s his fate: “Everything seems very logical: my father, me, maybe this will also be part of my son’s life.” It seems he has been chosen, he says. “And I feel very grateful. It gives meaning to my life.”

Isn’t there an element of self-selection, though? Not that he’s to blame, but Ai has consistently put himself forward, raised his voice, created problems for himself, you could even say. “Everything that’s happened to me,” he says with bemusement, “if it was difficult, people say I deserve it. If it’s something glamorous, then I don’t deserve it. But I hope the principles I defend benefit everyone. Then it would feel worth it.”

  • Ai Weiwei: Making Sense is at the Design Museum, London, 7 April to 30 July.



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Art in the Park sees another year of huge crowds – Windsor Star



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Perfect weather helped to draw big crowds to Art in the Park at Willistead Park on the weekend.

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“We like to say summer begins with Art on the Park,” said the organization’s chairman Allan Kidd.

The event, run by the Rotary Club of Windsor (1918), is now in its 44th year and it continues to grow, he said.

“A hot day like this is perfect,” he said. “This is potentially another record crowd. We set a record last year,” with 27,000 paying attendees. “We’re on track to do that again.”

The annual show is attended by people from other provinces in Canada and Kidd noted one person who was familiar with Art in the Park when he lived in South Africa.

Art in the Park
Kaitlynn Kenney, left, Ahsia Aghbari, Zeina Abdallah, Scarborough artist Tess Flores dance to the tunes from a nearby musician in her booth for Hollywood Arts and Design on Saturday, June 6, 2023.  (WINDSOR STAR/BRIAN MACLEOD) Photo by Brian MacLeod /Windsor Star

With 275 exhibitors and 15 musical performers, the event is a major fundraiser for the Rotary Club to support community projects around the world, Kidd said.

Last year, Art in the Park raised $80,000 to help with the maintenance and restoration of Willistead Manor, which itself provides the ideal setting for the event, he said. The Rotary Club also uses funds raised to support other causes.

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“We’re a charitable group. We buy wheelchairs and we drill water wells and we build schools,” said Kidd , who noted people don’t realize the event supports charitable causes.

“There’s a disconnect in the public eye,” Kidd said. “I like to say this is our gift to the community. We have this festival, everybody comes (and) for a couple of bucks they have a ball. All of these people are philanthropists without knowing it.”

Art in the Park
Todd Mansell of Amherstburg and Solange Silivria of Windsor enjoy the day at Art in the Park on Saturday, June 3, 2023. Solange makes it a tradition to come to the event since her mother, Charlene Evon took her every year. (Windsor – BRIAN MACLEOD) Photo by Brian MacLeod /Windsor Star

Solange Silivria of Windsor and friend Todd Mansell relaxed at a picnic table late Saturday. Silivria comes to the event every year.

“It’s something that I used to do every year with my mum and she has since passed,” she said. “I continue to do the tradition and come every single year and walk around. It’s something that she loved to do.”

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Silivria’s mother, Charlene Evon, used to run Bart Evon Designer Furniture, in LaSalle.

“I always try to meet up with friends or bring friends and come and enjoy the lovely artwork and the amazing talent, and walk around and just enjoy the day,” she said.

  1. Organizers for this year's Art in the Park at Willistead Park on Saturday, June 4, 2022 said they're expecting at least pre-pandemic crowds of more than 20,000 people over the two-day festival. The park was packed on the sunny Saturday afternoon.

    Art in the Park poised to return this weekend

  2. Crowds return to Art in the Park for 2022

Exhibitor Jasmine Samsair, a Windsor mixed-media abstract artist, put her work on display at the park for just the second year.

“I’ve always loved coming to Art in the Park,” she said. “I didn’t know there was such a market for abstract art. I thought why not give it a shot. I actually ended up doing really well last year and it was just so great meeting so many people.”

Art in the Park is a good opportunity to get artists’ work in front of the public, she said.

“Even if I don’t make any sale… the biggest thing that I find is exposure. I find that doing Art in the Park, the main thing was people discovering you, noticing your work and getting your name out there.”

Art in the Park
Stratford artist Michael McNeil shows some of his metal decor from Practical Art. McNeil has been an exhibitor at Art in the Park for more than 20 years. (WINDSOR STAR/BRIAN MACLEOD) Photo by Brian McLeod /Windsor Star


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20,000 people attend Art in the Park



It was a lovely weekend for a stroll in the park and more than 20,000 people had the same idea for this year’s Art in the Park at Willistead Park in Windsor, Ont.

The two-day festival features 275 different art vendors, food and ice cream trucks and music from a number of performing artists.

“It’s a wonderful thing because we see that our artists and our performers are being supported and that means a lot to us,” said Aggie Sarafianos, who hasn’t missed a single year of Art in the Park since it started back in 1979.

“The history, the atmosphere, the feeling that you get when you’re here is just second to none,” she said. “The camaraderie of the neighborhood is here, it’s very blatant.”


Vendors seemed quite pleased with the turnout, reporting strong sales this weekend.

“We’re told that it’s the best organized festival that we go to, so we love to hear that,” said Allan Kidd, the chair of Art in the Park, indicating they will try to squeeze in 300 vendors next year.

The event is put on by the Rotary Club of Windsor, with proceeds going to restoring Willistead Manor, digging water wells in Africa, and buying wheelchairs for kids in Windsor.

“Everybody that comes in here has a good time but they are all philanthropists because I can’t do it without them,” said Kidd. “Every dollar is put to good use cause we’re all volunteers. We’re grateful for the public and I think they love what we do too.”



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Tomás Saraceno: Web(s) of Life; Tate Britain rehang review – a five-star show that’s all generosity, and a reckoning with history



To reveal what happens inside Tomás Saraceno’s new show for the Serpentine Gallery is hardly a spoiler. Nothing could lessen the impact. In galleries of pitch darkness, spotlights pick out an unfolding sequence of ethereal silver visions, all of them apparently floating in midair.

One spreads like the Milky Way – points of light gathering in cosmic drifts. Another hovers like spectral morning mist. A third has a gleaming upright disc at its centre, woven of what seems to be the most exiguous gauze of metal threads, held in place by barely visible guy lines.

They appear to be drawings in thin air; and yet they are also sculptures – silk structures so tremulous and fine they shiver in the circumambient air. To learn how they are made (and who made them) is still to know nothing at all of the mysterious workings of the artists themselves – none other than several rare species of spider.

Saraceno is the great spider man of contemporary art. Born in Argentina in 1973, he trained first as an architect, and one senses his profound appreciation of the way spiders create buildings as works of art. So much so that he has not boxed in their structures. There is no glass. Whisper ever so slightly and these webs move with your breath. The wonder they engender is exactly what stops you from reaching out to touch.


These spiders, who create such beauty, have very poor sight. They do not hear as we do either. Visitors can sit in a repurposed confessional box staring closely at a spectacular web that hangs where the priest would usually sit; through the wooden seat run occasional tremors. This is roughly what the spider senses of the world as it works. Saraceno’s marvellous installation is a form of synaesthesia as homage: you witness the web while experiencing intermittent vibrations and blinking through a filigree grille.

A riveting film, in another gallery, shows the spider diviners of western Cameroon at work with clay pots and cards made of distinctively incised leaves. These cards are effectively the answers to vital questions asked by local people (or perhaps even by you too, now that Saraceno has built the diviners a website through which you can correspond). The spiders move the cards to give their wisdom. It feels as strange and mythical as the Oracle at Delphi.

By now, having surrendered your mobile phone on entry to some charming artists who return it with a divination card on exit, you will have realised that webs are a metaphor for the way Saraceno works. The spiders have answers that no phone can give; no phone can capture the magical webs. And phones involve batteries that require lithium, subject of another of Saraceno’s art campaigns, and of a beautifully shot film screening in the central rotunda.

Tomás Saraceno and Aerocene’s record-breaking 2020 flight.

This concerns the Indigenous communities of Jujuy in Argentina who are fighting for the preservation of vital land and water threatened by the relentless mining for lithium to supply our wretched batteries. The narrative of words, images, protests and interviews is deeply absorbing. And, not incidentally, you will also see a flotilla of black balloons (sculptures, too, in their way) that are powered to fly across the sparkling white salt flats of Jujuy using solar energy. These are another of Saraceno’s attempts to find a way, as he puts it, “to levitate without any violence to the earth”. His flight in 2020 broke 32 records and was then the longest fossil-free flight in history.

One side of the Serpentine Gallery is entirely open to the green landscape outside. Animals of all sorts are welcome (there is a ladder for squirrels, a house for birds, welcoming sculptures of dogs, deer and hedgehogs). Children have their own secret gallery. The roof is laid with solar panels to supply energy. Pedal the bicycles outside and you power up the voices of Jujuy on headphones.

Saraceno’s Cloud Cities: Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, 2023, for 24 cohabiting species, outside the Serpentine Gallery.

Saraceno’s work is as delicate and involving as the webs he displays. Artist, scientist, activist, philosopher, inventor, composer, he is a Renaissance mind for the 21st century. And what is so striking about this captivating exhibition, in all its generosity, is that Saraceno believes that everyone else is as curious and optimistic as he is: that art can have active agency.

It is 10 years since Tate Britain last reorganised its collection, a decade so turbulent even art institutions could not remain heedless. The new rehang embraces many more women and artists of colour, introduces much more historical context about patronage, society, race, class and politics, and stints (mercifully) on Bacon, Hockney, Freud et al, who scarcely need further enlargement. There are sufficient new names, overdue revivals and close-focus galleries – an electrifying William Blake, a fascinating room of one’s own devoted to Woolf-era women – as to educate the mind and eye and renew the experience.

Neon Rice Field, 1993 by Vong Phaophanit in the ‘terrific’ Duveen Galleries at Tate Britain.

The faults are many and obvious. Above all, this rehang treats artworks as documents. An 18th-century tea party allows for sermonising on tea (imperialism), sugar (slavery) and servants (oppressed), but the picture itself is atrocious. George Stubbs and Samuel Palmer are told off for ignoring rural conditions in their spellbinding harvests and twilights. Annie Swynnerton gets a whole room for her cloyingly awful art because she was a suffragist who painted Millicent Fawcett.

And for a rehang more interested in history than art, it’s oddly erratic. Thin on the English civil war, say; Waterloo, the welfare state, LGBTQ+ rights. As for the spelling: Magna Carter?

But the Duveen Galleries are terrific: Vong Phaophanit’s 1993 neon rice field in its mysterious glowing dunes; Rachel Whiteread’s mind-splitting cast of a double staircase, labyrinthine and vertiginous; Susan Hiller’s reprise of the walls of sudden and heroic deaths from London’s Postman’s Park.

Lydia Ourahmane’s The Third Choir, 2014 at Tate Britain.

The rooms are jewel-coloured and densely hung. All the old favourites remain – Turner, Gainsborough, Constable, the pre-Raphaelites – alongside sharp recent purchases: the haunting interiors of Iraqi painter Mohammed Sami; Zineb Sedira’s superbly wry films (early hit of the last Venice Biennale); Lydia Ourahmane’s haunting oil barrel installation – the first artwork legally to leave Algeria since it gained independence in 1962, with its redolent scent and its ghostly inner music, which finally reached here in 2014.

It will all change again – and quite possibly should, in much less than a decade this time. Some of the texts will have dated by then, some of the biases faded. But in the meantime, this rehang opens its arms to the present. The art can hold its own against the preaching any day, after all. Just look more and read less.

Star ratings (out of five)
Tomás Saraceno: Web(s) of Life ★★★★★


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