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Child’s Play

Ai Weiwei at the Bon Marché.

Chinese architect, sculptor, video artist, and photographer Ai Weiwei just closed a show at the Louvre; but he is not finished with Paris yet. Rather, Weiwei is opening a new exhibit, titled Er Xi, Air de Jeux, or Child’s Play, this one held at a seemingly unlikely venue: the Bon Marché, Paris’s historic department store.

In fact, the Bon Marché has been associated with the arts since its founder Aristide Boucicaut and his wife, Marguerite, displayed their private collection within the store. Yet for Weiwei, the location presents a new challenge: “Showing at Le Bon Marché is using a new medium, the department store, to encounter a new audience …,” says the artist, whose father, the poet Ai Qing, spent three years in Paris as a young painter, and regaled a young Weiwei with stories of the city of light. “This experience also allows me to find a new way to conceive an exhibition, with constraints that are different from a museum’s or a gallery’s.”

The collection is inspired by Shan Hai Jing, or Classic of Mountains and Seas, a series of legends that have been told to children in China for over 2,000 years. Weiwei transforms ten storefront display windows into mythological realms, each with paper kites crafted in the shapes of the fabled creatures said to inhabit them. Suspended within the store’s inner atriums are three-dimensional interpretations of Shan Hai Jing woodcuts, while the store’s gallery features a dragon made from woven bamboo.

“We all lead parallel lives in this other world of dreams, fantasies, and fears,” says Weiwei of the folklore-scape. “We must learn to coexist with them, as they are an integral part of our humanity, to embrace our mythology. Children know how to do this naturally. This exhibition speaks to our inner child.”