In 2007 artist Ai WeiWei took 1,001 Chinese people to the small German town of Kessel as part of a bewildering art installation. This is the story of how he did it.
As a record of an art project, Fairytale is unflinchingly raw, effectively two and a half hours of home video footage shown in order without commentary or explanation. It begins with Ai vomiting violently and includes many other scenes you wouldn’t expect in an art documentary including Ai and his friends during a heavy drinking session.
It has an astonishing scale as Ai prepares a giant warehouse full of beds and transports his volunteers over three days each way. And while the emphasis is on the Chinese experience in Germany, it’s as much about how the town responds to the sudden influx of a large number of people who have little cultural common ground. Some of the best moments come from their interactions, including the the Chinese visitors’ befuddlement at a supposedly Chinese-style building.
This work, like much of Ai’s oeuvre, almost studiously avoids interpretation, at least one single interpretation. Not content with just one project, in Kessel he constructs a giant art installation from Ming and Qing Dynsasty doors and windows. When it’s destroyed in a storm, Ai celebrates the creation of something even more beautiful. It’s hard to escapt the thought that the works are either those of a genius or a madman.
The project largely focuses on people from poor and rural areas who hadn’t travelled abroad before. Not only is this a logistical challenge but an administrative one, with hundreds of passport applications required from the notoriously impenentrable Chinese bureaucracy. For some women this involves inventing a name for themselves, as they are known only by their relationships to men.
For a Western audience who mainly know the China of martial arts films or the gleaming modern face it presents to the world, seeing a town with no electricity and mud floored school house is a due reminder of the huge poverty and deprivation which still exists, looking more Throne of Blood than Beijing Olympics.
This documentay would benefit from additional focus to allow us to get to know the characters more, and the impact it has on them, but perhaps this wouldn’t be in Ai’s spirit. So when the Kessel run is complete the film ends abruptly, leaving us with as many questions as when we started. Mainly, how on earth did he fund this most epic of Chinese take-aways?