Ai Weiwei's new canvas: a luxury emporium in Paris

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei's works at the Bon Marche Rive Gauche department store.
Chinese artist Ai Weiwei's works at the Bon Marche Rive Gauche department store. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

PARIS • On Sunday evening, Ai Weiwei - Chinese dissident artist, human rights activist and, now, European scenester - was holding court on the cosmetics floor of the Bon Marche Rive Gauche, the Paris department store. The event was the invitation-only opening of Er Xi, or Child's Play, an exhibit of his work that fills 10 display windows and the store's atrium through Feb 20.

Bamboo-and-rice-paper constructions lit from inside and depicting fanciful creatures from Chinese mythology hung from the atrium. A smoke machine pumped atmospheric mist. Pianists played Chopin on grand pianos as waiters passed around Moet Champagne, hot tea and bite-size chocolate eclairs on wooden trays.

Ai says that working in a department store had been liberating. It allowed him to go beyond the white cube of most galleries and use the atrium and window displays in an interesting way, he said, and he liked that passers-by could see his work.

If hyper-popular museums such as the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) have been described as shopping malls - commercial, crowded and the opposite of contemplative - then here, paradoxically, was a retailing emporium with art thrown in, and where viewing that art seemed a rather more welcoming and pleasant experience.

"This is better than MoMA," Ai said of the Bon Marche.

Anyone needing more evidence that the distinctions between public and private, high and low, art and commerce, and actual versus Internet celebrity have now imploded beyond recognition need look no further than this example of a populist Chinese dissident artist exhibiting in a luxury department store in one of the world's fashion capitals.

Paparazzi took pictures of Ai snapping selfies with admiring fans, including Mr Bernard Arnault, chairman of the LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton luxury empire, which owns the Bon Marche.

On the second floor, through a room of lacy lingerie and Eres swimwear, was a "selfie wall" of pictures of the artist, with cameos of Wiki divo Julian Assange and artist Olafur Eliasson.

Ai has wound up where Andy Warhol began: designing department store windows. But rather than merchandise, Ai put on display political messages. One shows the artist, his once confiscated passport having been returned by the Chinese government in July, as a Buddha, with a halo of surveillance cameras pointed at his head. Labels cite the influence of Marcel Duchamp, the master of turning everyday objects into art.

The Bon Marche first contacted the artist in late 2014, when he was still prevented from leaving China, said Mr Frederic Bodenes, the store's artistic director.

How much the store invests in art and how much it is paying Ai remain a secret.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 21, 2016, with the headline 'Ai Weiwei's new canvas: a luxury emporium in Paris'. Print Edition | Subscribe