The Fairytale Project

Installation View, The Fairytale Workshop



By Veronica Cianfrano

showing until October 11, 2011

“Fairytale is really a very good project, we’re still discussing whether we should give teacher Weiwei a flag, ha ha, I’m joking! It really feels like I’m living in a fairytale. Teacher Weiwei made dreams come true, he convinced people there can really still be fairytales in this world, that there are still things worth believing in. This trip will change my life, by making me certain that miracles and fairytales can happen again”. -Interview #19

Which Fairytale moves you most?  Do you believe in love?  Do you still believe in your dreams?  These were some of the questions in the participant application form for the Fairytale Project posted on Ai Weiwei’s blog in 2006. Through this project, the world-renowned Chinese artist was seeking to connect cultures and rethink cultural identity by cultivating collective memory to transform the lives of the participants, their families and communities, and the people of Kassel, Germany. Ai Weiwei and his team selected 1001 out of 3,000 Chinese applicants to receive complimentary airline tickets and accommodation, so that between June 12 and July 9, 2007 they could flood the streets of Kassel for Documenta 12, an international art exhibition that takes place every five years in the small German town.

Many of the selected individuals dreamt of experiencing cultures outside China but never had the chance due to government restrictions and the expense of international travel. In fact, many of the applicants that were chosen had never obtained a passport before.  “Fairytale”: the official documentary shows one such case, a former policeman who lost his job for speaking unfavorably about the Chinese government and was blacklisted. After a long bureaucratic process, the final group of 1001 participants traveled in 5 groups of 200 to Germany. Once there, they were free to explore and experience Kassel as they wished and to participate in and experience Documenta 12. They were interviewed during their week-long stay and followed by a camera crew. Each person also received a mini flash drive so that Ai Weiwei’s studio could have a record of all the digital images taken on their trip.  This intense documentation has resulted in more than 150,000 digital photographs, 1001 applications and 94 original interviews.

Philadelphia’s Slought Foundation has partnered with Melissa Lam, an independent Hong Kong curator in taking on the responsibility of sorting and translating Fairytale’ s extensive trove of information. Ai Weiwei, Melissa Lam, Aaron Levy, Mimi Cheng and many others are collaborating on an open-ended living archive that attempts to revisitFairytale and perpetuate its intercultural dialogue. The current workshop at the Slought Foundation, running from August 8th to October 11th, is translating the 94 interviews and 1001 applications from Mandarin to English and German and posting them on a project site, Once complete, the team plans to re-establish communication with the original 1001 participants in 2012 for the 5th anniversary of their trip.

The workshop at the Slought Foundation opens with a large slide show of 1001 portraits. Each portrait has a square format and features one participant, all in more or less the same posture, centered in the frame. To the left is a hand-written quote by Ai Weiwei about the mission of Fairytale: “This is not represented by one project but by 1001 projects, each individual will have his or her independent experience”. Visitors are invited to watch the documentary at a viewing station in the corner or view the 94 clipboards that occupy the remaining walls. Each clipboard represents one individual’s experiences and opinions from the trip. Under each clipboard is the same square portrait from the slideshow and a number (names are not provided to minimize risk to the participants). Visitors to Slought are invited to leaf through the contents of these clipboards at a workstation where there is also a collage of additional images and a copy of the original application form.

The documentary shows Ai Weiwei carefully escorting groups of participants to Chinese government offices to get their passports. Once in Germany, he organizes the housing for the participants and plans their meals as if 1001 of his closest friends were coming to stay with him. Ai Weiwei demonstrates a powerful love for this group of people and a desire for them to connect in a completely unique way; an experience that will be remembered by each participant forever. I spent hours at the Slought Foundation leafing through the interviews and watching the documentary. I watched as a farmer from a tiny village sat on an airplane for the first time. He was an older man and he appeared to have gotten a haircut for the occasion. He sat in his seat with impeccable posture and looked around the aircraft with nervous excitement, carefully tucking his ticket into his inside coat pocket. This man had most likely lived a life of physical labor and practicality. I thought about what his life would normally be like and how this experience might have changed his beliefs about what is possible. I got up to look for his clipboard on the wall.

The Fairytale Project’s workshop and simultaneous archival research initiative is a fairly straightforward job of compiling data and making it accessible on a website and in the workshop. However, The Fairytale Project itself is charged with politics, philosophy, and emotion. Understanding The Fairytale Project as a series of interactions and intercultural dialogues suggests that there is no end to the project. Egyptologist Jan Assman’s concept of cultural memory posits that through globalization, people will begin to merge their memories as private experiences become more public, ultimately changing people’s sense of cultural identity in ways that are less available to external control. Perhaps sharing a memory of a moment with a multitude of people, though separated by space and time, is a powerful connection that until recently had only been dreamt of.

Veronica Cianfrano is a multimedia artist who lives and works in Philadelphia. She received her MFA from the University Of The Arts in 2010 and has been curating exhibitions and working collaboratively in the Philadelphia area since then.