Chinese Dissident Artist Ai Weiwei at Home in Rural Portugal
Updated: 7 days ago
Ai Weiwei: Making Sense is a commentary on everyday objects and what they reveal about our changing values. The show is at the Design Museum in London until July 30.
The following article was written by Catarina Loureiro for Conde Nast Traveler (March 21, 2022).
“I always feel comfortable everywhere,” says Ai Weiwei from the rural property he recently bought in central Alentejo. The revered Chinese conceptual artist and dissident has spent much of his life in transit.
As a boy, he moved with his exiled father, the influential poet, Ai Qing, to desolate northwest China. As a young artist, he relocated to New York City and lived there from 1981 through 1993. He returned to China and, after a period of government-ordered detention, moved to Berlin in 2015 and to Cambridge, England, in 2019.
At the start of the pandemic, he arrived in Montemor-o-Novo, where he shares his property with foxes, moles, and porcupines. Since the move, he has launched two major shows – Rapture in Lisbon and Ai Weiwei: Entralaçar in Porto – on through summer (2022).
His work brings him to the city, but he feels most at peace in the countryside.
“The view goes far, far away. You can see the edge of the empty land,” he says. “That’s the luxury of my life here.”
Last year, you moved from Berlin to rural Portugal. What did you expect to find there?
I arrived in Portugal without any knowledge of the country. I grew up in Communist China, and my father received a medal from the president of Portugal many years ago, which he presented to him at the Portuguese Embassy in Beijing. That’s all I knew about Portugal. I had lived in Berlin for the last five years before moving here but, in the end, the Berlin winter is too long. And I don’t like that the days are always gray. It makes me sad.
What drew you in?
The first thing I noticed was all the sunshine, 300 days a year. Nature is so generous; it gives you everything for free. And I’m getting older (born in 1957), so I need somewhere to settle down. For 60-odd years, I’d never had a plot of land. I saw this house and told the owner I wanted to buy it.
One Saturday, I went to the market in Montemor-o-Novo, and a lady asked, “Why did you choose Montemor-o-Novo”? When people choose a place, they always have reasons. But in my case, I’m going by my intuition. Now that I’ve lived here for a year during the pandemic, I feel like I grew up here.
You aren’t far from the coast.
If you drive 40 minutes or an hour, you get to very beautiful beaches. Beaches where there’s not even footprints in the sand. It’s so empty and so beautiful that you can’t believe it. In other places, any beach like the ones here would be full of tourists. Even without the pandemic, they are very quiet places. You more or less feel like you’re on a private beach.
Sometimes we also go near the Vasco da Gama Bridge in Lisbon, in the Tagus Estuary. When the tide is low, there is a huge tidal pool with all these crabs, clams, birds. I’ve never seen nature like this.
What are some other highlights in Alentejo?
Evora is a very beautiful city: the architecture, the market, the restaurants. I really like markets in the places that I go here because they reflect the history of the area. They show how humans behaved in the past. You see a lot of things that are no longer used. You try to imagine that past time, what their lifestyle was. And here, there’s no haggling because they give you an honest price.
Casa de Cha da Boa Nova (Boa Nova Tea House) is a restaurant designed by Alvaro Siza Vieria (1958-1963) in Leça da Palmeira, Matosinhos Municipality, in Porto District. Access is via a stepped pathway integrated into the rocks. The path alternately reveals and hides the sea. On reaching the building, the low eaves of the roof direct the visitor's gaze to the sea. Inside, large glass panels blur the boundaries between the structure and its surroundings. The building has been classified as a national monument since 2011.
You began your career as an architect. What do you think of the work of Portuguese architects like Alvaro Siza Vieira?
Oh, I love it! I have been following his architecture for a long time. I went to his restaurant, Casa da Cha da Boa Nova, and I could feel his thoughts. But it is his modernity that is striking. And he was so young – he was 25 years old! To give someone under the age of 30 that freedom is incredible. So that means that not only he but, also society, was open enough for that.
With Rapture, you collaborated with heritage tile house Viuva Lamego in Sintra. How did that come about?
I have had a great interest in porcelain and ceramics since the 1970s. My compatriots make super-fine-quality porcelain. So here I saw the tiles and understood that there is tradition. I like working with them. I always try to integrate different kinds of language to give tradition a new interpretation. The Viuva Lamego factory is impressive, and they were up to the challenge.