Zodiac Heads “appetiser” for larger Ai Weiwei project in 2017, says NG chief

Photo: CTK

There will be great excitement in the Czech art world on Friday when Ai Weiwei makes his first appearance in Prague. The world-famous Chinese artist and activist will be in town to officially open an exhibition of his Zodiac Heads at the Czech National Gallery, kicking off celebrations of its 220th anniversary. On the eve of Ai Weiwei’s visit, I asked the director of the National Gallery, Jiří Fajt, what the presence of an artist of such stature means to his institution.

Photo: CTK
“I think that it’s part of the new dramaturgy of the National Gallery. Our dramaturgy should be more open, more international.

“And of course we are focusing on the personalities in the artistic world that attract a certain attention and that haven’t so far been presented in the Czech Republic.

“So I think this is a great occasion to introduce not only the public in the Czech Republic but in the whole of Central Europe to someone like Ai Weiwei, who really deserves our attention.”

Have you yourself had much interaction with Ai Weiwei? And has it been a complicated process to secure his cooperation?

“I visited him for the first time last spring in Beijing. That was under the regime where he wasn’t really a free person.

“At that time he didn’t have his passport and he didn’t know whether the situation would be changed soon.

Ai Weiwei,  photo: Hafenbar,  CC BY-SA 2.0 de
“It was a great meeting at his house. He introduced us to his cooperators. He showed us his very interesting collection of classical art, objects of textile origin and so on.

“We actually discussed his way of perception of the world, of society, and we stayed together the whole day.

“That was our first meeting and it was based on my close relationship with our mutual friend Peter Pakesch from Austria, who helped me to contact Ai Weiwei in person.

“And since the time he obtained his passport back I have visited him in Berlin, in his studio and his apartment.

“Because I am actually living in Berlin as well – my family stayed there [Fajt previously worked in Germany], so we are actually neighbours.

“We can reach each other in a couple of minutes, so it’s not so complicated.”

I understand that Ai Weiwei is planning some kind of site specific work for the National Gallery for next year. Will that be a bigger event than the exhibition of the Zodiac Heads that’s now on?

“I think so. I would say that Ai Weiwei is watching his Zodiac Heads and the presentation of the cycle in Prague as a sort of appetiser.

“We are really focusing ourselves on this larger project, which as you mentioned will be site specific.

“It will be organised in the big hall of the Trade Fair Palace, which is the place where the [Slavic Epic] cycle by Alphonse Mucha is now presented.

Photo: CTK
“So I am very much looking forward to this project. It will actually be the first one to open the new dramaturgy of this large hall which will become a central focus of the National Gallery’s dramaturgy in the upcoming years.”

Ai Weiwei's Zodiac Heads will be on show in front of the Trade Fair Palace, which houses the National Gallery's modern art collection, on Prague's Dukelských hrdinů street until the end of August this year.