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1,001 Chinese as living art in Germany

For the most costly single artwork in the 52-year history of the Documenta expo, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei invites 1,001 of his compatriots to perform in his piece Fairytale.

world Updated: Jun 16, 2007 18:08 IST

The Chinese visitors are kitted out just like world tourists anywhere: shorts, t-shirts, comfortable shoes, purses secured to belts or wrists and with their own bottles of water. All of them have digital cameras and take shutterbug pictures of everything memorable and even not memorable.

But these are no tourists. They are art. For the most expensive single artwork in the 52-year history of the Documenta expo, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has invited 1,001 of his compatriots to perform in Kassel as part of his piece Fairytale.

As far as Ai has revealed, they do not have to do anything, just be in Kassel.

Documenta staff said Beijing asked for the visits to be staggered, so only the first contingent of 200 have arrived in Kassel before the show opens Saturday.

"The Chinese coming is not just a symbol. It's reality," said Ai, explaining that he sought to create a cultural encounter, where contemporary art and ordinary life intermingle.

"Most Chinese will never have the opportunity to visit Europe," he said. "Many of them have never even left their hometowns."

When he advertised on his website for volunteers to travel to Kassel for free, more than 3,000 put down their names in a short space of time and the offer was closed.

A Swiss sponsor is paying the fares and other costs, estimated at more than 3 million euros ($4 million).

Ai is a leader of China's avantgarde, the son of one of China's leading poets. His father was banished to "the furthest corner of China" soon after Ai's birth. The son moved to the US in the 1980s to attend university, but moved back home after 12 years.

In Beijing he worked as an architect and did some of the work on the new Olympic Stadium there.

The candidates for the trip faced a 99-point questionnaire about Germany, politics, history, imagination and luck.

Ai then chose his 1,001 from 20 of China's 22 provinces and from every level of society: teachers and traffic police, students and tradesmen, even Dong mountain tribesmen from Guangxi in southern China.

A couple of Dong women had to pick new names for themselves when they applied for passports, as they had previously been named only after their husbands or their sons.

The visitors are staying in a former Volkswagen factory in Kassel: men downstairs, women upstairs.

The rooms are divided up with sheets of white cloth, resembling a temporary military hospital.

In each of the resulting cubicles, there are five beds on each side with a narrow table between the two rows. A bowl of apples, bottles of water and Chinese newspapers are on the table.

There is a "little privacy", admitted Ai. Literally so! A space smaller than a telephone callbox has been created in a corner of each cubicle with a chair and reading lamp inside.

The arrival of about 100 journalists sweeps away all vestiges of privacy, with curtains opened and TV cameras aimed at the performers.

"It's all right. We are a work of art," said Gong Tran of Beijing philosophically. She did not find the situation upsetting. It was far too interesting for that. And she had always wanted to visit Germany.

A young friend, Li Yu, added that she was "delighted" to become a work of art. "How many other people could claim that?" she said with a laugh. Neither woman was sure why Ai had invited them.

"We don't care. We want to go shopping and we want to see Documenta," they said. The international show of contemporary art is held just once every five years.

"People in Kassel come up and talk to us, ask us who we are, want to shake our hands," said Ai. "It's great."

Even "normal" Chinese tourists in Kassel said they have been accosted in the city and asked if they are "Weiwei Chinese". Ai said his experiment has turned out a success - or mostly.

He wanted to cook a nice meal for the first 200 visitors. "But I'm too busy fielding questions from you reporters," he said.