For his contribution to Documenta 12 in Kassel, Germany, artist Ai Weiwei brought to town 1,001 residents of China during the well-known art fair. With $4.14 million from funding sources such as Documenta’s sponsors, three Swiss foundations, as well as the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ai arranged all aspects of travel. He paid for airfare, processed visa applications, refurbished an old textile mill into a temporary hostel, transported Chinese chefs to cook meals, designed travel items such as clothing and luggage, and organized tours of Kassel’s landmarks. He also installed 1,001 empty antique chairs throughout the exhibition pavilion to represent the Chinese participants’ presence in Kassel. His visitors acted as both tourists and subjects of his art–viewers of a foreign culture, as well as signs of another.
Within three days of advertising the free trip on his blog, Ai received 3,000 applications. He privileged those with limited resources or travel restrictions; for example, women from a farming village, who lacked proper identity cards, were able to obtain government-issued travel documents for the first time. Other participants included laid-off workers, police officers, children, street vendors, students, farmers, and artists. They arrived en masse, in groups of 200. However, Ai solicited their individual voices through filmed interviews with each traveler, and also a lengthy questionnaire–99 questions–that focused on personal histories, desires, and fantasies.
Kassel is best known as home to the Brothers Grimm, famed collectors of fables from the region. Ai named his project Fairytale in reference to their tales, and as a nod to the spirit of the trip, which likely felt mythical to many of the tourists, who had perhaps never before dreamed of leaving China.