Contemporary artist Ai Weiwei provides an insight into how he works with the help of cat behaviour

Ai Weiwei is a very well-known contemporary artist from China who has been banished from his country as he’s been condemned as a ‘rightist’. He has said and done the wrong things and been outcast. In 2011 he disappeared for 81 days in a Chinese prison. And he has spent four years under house arrest. He left China in 2015 and has lived in Portugal, Berlin and Cambridge in the UK. He is too much of a free spirit for Chinese society.

Ai Weiwei
Ai Weiwei. Photo: Steffen Roth/The Observer
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In a Guardian article Ai Weiwei refers to cat behavior. This caught my eye, as it would. In a 2020 show at Tang Contemporary Art in Bangkok, Thailand, he exhibited a toilet roll made out of marble. He explained why he created this artwork. He used domestic cat behavior to help in explaining how he works.

Ai Weiwei toilet roll made of marble
Ai Weiwei toilet roll made of marble. Photo: in public domain.

He thinks that playfulness is important in life. I believe that he means by that that life can be a bit crazy (very crazy?). You can’t take it too seriously which leads to a playful attitude. And he said: “I am like a cat. Cats can play for a whole day”.

I have added a cat to the image of the toilet roll artwork in the spirit of playfulness:

Ai Weiwei marble toilet roll and playful cat
Ai Weiwei marble toilet roll and playful cat. Image: MikeB.

Ai Weiwei then said: “Cats are always wondering. If you throw a paper ball to a cat, it can play for a whole day…Life is a serious matter, but also ironic. When marble was used in the past, it had a monumental or memorialising status. Toilet paper disappeared from the shelves during the pandemic. This is a society in which we can send a shuttle into outer space yet cannot solve a humble problem โ€“ the moment deserved to be remembered.”

He was being interviewed by Kate Kellaway, a Guardian journalist. This statement explains why he used marble as a material in his artwork: it is monumental and very permanent. My interpretation is that he chose marble as it is juxtaposed against the temporary nature and fragility of toilet paper which is flushed away. And he chose toilet paper because it became the center of attention of crazy behaviour during the early stages of the Covid pandemic when it was stripped from the shelves and hoarded in fear that it might run out. So, the artwork is a comment on human society and human behaviour and a comment on permanency and transience.

The artwork is described as a ‘metaphor for this geng zi year’ (the thirty-seventh in the sexagenary cycle). No idea what that means ๐Ÿ˜ƒ.

Ironically, domestic cats like to play with toilet paper. There is a connection there between cats and the artwork. I wonder if it was intended. I doubt it but it is quite neat.

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These are my personal thoughts. Each person has their own interpretation. His statement provides an insight into how he thinks when he is creating art. This is important to me. Anybody who is creative wants to know how to be creative. You might think it is instinctive and if it’s not you can’t be creative. I disagree. Every artist has probably thought long and hard about what kind of art is relevant and how to create good artworks. The learn from other artists. Perhaps art is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration.

Ai Weiwei has learned a little from the domestic cat and their playful behaviour. Although domestic cats can’t play all day as he states ๐Ÿ˜Š. They get bored. Play for a domestic cat is a substitute for hunting. What he means is that cats can play for quite a long time with the right materials and human interaction because they are committed to hunting. It is their raison d’รชtre, their reason for living. They hunt, eat, groom, snooze, sleep and then start all over again (cat mojo).

Below are some articles about cats in art as opposed to cats inspiring art:

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