There is a building complex in Beijing that looks like a fortress – or, perhaps, a prison. Either way, it’s not a place that looks conducive to creativity. Yet, behind its concrete walls sits the equally controversial and celebrated artist, Ai Weiwei, with his team, and his roving family of cats. It’s also where Tom Wu, a former Central Saint Martins design student, completed a four-week internship last year. On top of the valuable technical skills he learned from Ai during his stint, the famed provocateur also gave Wu, of all things, a haircut.
Wu’s story starts with a poster. In 2011, Ai was arrested and sent to jail for his political candour, so to speak, and Chinese authorities did their very best to keep it as secret as possible – in fact when Wu replied to do this interview, he apologised for a late response with “sorry… China just blocked Google”. To try and spotlight China’s censorship, Wu designed a poster that he showed at a CSM exhibition, which he later forwarded to Ai Weiwei, who, touched, offered Wu an internship. His first task? Clearing snow. Not at all what Wu had expected.
Soon, the familiar inner-workings of Ai’s studio became evident, and their set-up felt akin to your average family’s daily-grind. The artist would serve breakfast to his team at 9am, sharp – approximately 25 men and women, with Wu being the only intern. Then, they’d likely not see Weiwei again until night time – he’d be off giving interviews around Beijing, or tucked away updating his Twitter. During the day, Wu assisted with media coordination and e-mails – general admin stuff – but also had a hand in the ‘Sunflower Seeds’ project. The installation, commissioned by London’s Tate Modern, was made up of millions of hand crafted porcelain seeds, spread on the floor of its famous Turbine Hall. Visitors were invited to interact with the project – lie on it, kick it, steal it. Indeed, afterwards, Ai received so many e-mails from people requesting seeds that he instructed his team to pack up every last one, sending them off around the world to anyone asking. This was one of Wu’s jobs. “I didn’t do much design work because, at the time, they were working on an architecture project. I worked on transcribing interviews and delivering sunflower seeds to fans.” That’s not to say that his placement wasn’t valuable.
Wu notes that he learned more than just how a practising studio works. “I’m really shocked that I got a chance to see Ai’s warehouse and look at some of his collections. They were amazing.” More importantly, he adds, “I could talk to colleagues who worked on some of the pieces. That experience is so precious for a designer who wants to know everything about the working process.” Wu even became friendly with Ai himself, appreciating his humour and his philosophy. When delivering feedback on a task, Ai would only comment “good, interesting”, or “bad, boring”. He did not go into detail. Although Wu knew when the artist was upset. His first task clearing snow, which Ai still remembers, is something Wu cites as his most memorable experience. “I was born in South China where snow melts in no more than two days, [so] Ai was a little upset when he saw me messing with the snow to begin with. It was a good lesson for me; I forced myself to learn with tools I had never seen before.” And Wu’s tenacity clearly impressed, as he’s now on staff, working on t-shirts and posters for the AI CANT BE HERE project in Weiwei’s studio. One of the perks of the job? On particularly cheerful days, Ai gives staffers one of those aforementioned haircuts - often with unusual slashes or arcs, and posted to his Instagram.
In retrospect, the initial month-long placement was more than just an opportunity to gain experience; it was an opportunity to speak up. “The political thing in China forces a lot of people to be quiet about Ai Weiwei. You cannot get any information about him on the internet – it’s blocked. The reason I am trying to tell the story of my internship is because I realized that a lot of Chinese people like him and his work.” His 65,000 + follower count on Instagram can attest to that. It also shows there’s strength in numbers, and that you can’t keep a good man down. You know what they say, “where there’s a Wu, there’s a Wei” – or something like that.