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How to Get a Seat in Ai Weiwei's Coveted Class in Berlin
by Nadja Sayej

Ai Weiwei is now a professor at the Berlin University of the Arts. So when you stop him for a selfie on the streets of the German capital—or when you spot him somewhere collecting Lego—be sure to holler “Professor Weiwei!

The Chinese artist spoke at a press conference this week confirming his guest teaching position, which starts November 1 and will run until 2018. He kicks off his Einstein Visiting Professorship with a public lecture which is open to the public and will be streamed live—even faculty work on weekends, it seems.

Image: Nadja Sayej

The artist strolled into the press conference casually, while dozens of cameras and video crews snapped away. He was dressed as he often does when he appears in public: blue slipper-like shoes, a navy dress shirt with matching pants, and a blue, factory-like overcoat. He brought two mobile phones to the press conference, using one to take pictures of the journalists (which he then posted to his Instagram) while the other video recorded the entire press conference. (When I asked what he plans on doing with the footage, he said it was just for his "ongoing collection.")


A photo posted by Ai Weiwei (@aiww) on Oct 26, 2015 at 2:03am PDT


The school first invited Weiwei to start teaching in 2010, but he in 2011 he was detained by the Chinese government. When the artist’s passport was handed back this summer the school approached the artist again. Berlin University of the Arts—which is the largest of its kind in Europe—is no stranger to rock star professors: Vivienne Westwood taught here, and Olafur Eliasson also works as a professor (and took his class to Ethiopia for his Little Sun project). 



ArtStars* interviews Ai Weiwei at the Berlin University of the Arts press conference


Obviously potential students would line up for miles and pay anything to work with the art world’s cherished Chinese art star. But Ai Weiwei chose his class by interviewing 100 students (in a school of 3,600) who were already enrolled in the school’s programs of dance, fashion, design, and art. He chose 16 students based on “their attitude, their skills and their understanding of the media,” he said. He interviewed them on their background, what they do, their families, and their life. Weiwei specifically asked the school to teach students from different disciplines, including dance and design. “This makes it so special,” he said. 

But who gets to be in Weiwei's class? We take a closer look at the qualities you need to be taught by one of the world's most influential artists.

Rich Kids Weren’t Prioritized

“What do you do to support yourself to go on with your studies?” was one of the questions Weiwei asked his potential students. “They all have side jobs and it was amazing to see they work several days a week to make ends meet,” he said. “They need €600 a month; they try to cope with their life. They sometimes don’t go by subway to school because it’s too expensive, so they go by bike to the university.” 

You Need Special Skills 

“Teaching needs a lot of time,” said Weiwei. “I need the students to invest as much time as possible.” (But how will students do this with those part-time jobs, one wonders?) But possessing innate skills, he notes, was an important aspect in choosing students. “What special skills do they already have?” he asked. “They are already underway in the way they express themselves. It’s an incentive for me to learn from these students in regards to fine arts.”

You Need to Teach Weiwei 

When I asked Weiwei how he hopes to inspire the students, he said he’s not going into it with a traditional mindset. “I’ll just be a part of the whole class experience,” he said. “For me, teaching is learning, too.”

The Goal Is to Have No Goal

“My terminology is that I don’t have an objective or an aim but I go to according to some means,” said Weiwei, who often speaks in short aphorisms." 'Art is an aim' is not my way of working, so those who work that way were excluded from the group.”

Opportunists Were Canned

The students who wanted to tap into Weiwei’s “secrets of success” were not chosen. “There were those students who asked me “What is the secret of your success? Because we want to benefit from this secret of success or participate in it.” I excluded these students because I don’t believe in such questions. Am I successful?”

You Need to Be Ok with Chaos

Weiwei said the process of choosing students was “chaotic,” yet he also seems to embraces chaos, and maybe even encourages it in others. “The students who are searching for something new,” he said, “those who have started the process of searching themselves,” he chose. “The message to the students is that I can’t talk about objectives, as I am quite a chaotic person myself.”

You Need Know How to Drive in a Car Chase 

“I selected 16 students for their understanding of the media, of design, of fashion and also how to take part in things for those who want to escape at night or to drive a car like in Ocean’s 11,” he said. “Their identity is important, but it’s more about their attitude and how they understand life.”

You Should Be Ready For Good Times 

“I have an ego,” said Weiwei, “so I wanted to choose those so we can all have a good time together. 16 students is the number of students I can cope with.”

Originality Counts 

“The emphasis is on skills, so I don’t encourage any students to be like me,” he said. “Art is a moment or activity that creates something different, different from his teacher’s.”


As Ai Weiwei was leaving the building, cameras followed him outside to his taxi. “Imagine every day at school was like this?” I asked. Weiwei laughed. “This is not reality.” 

Weiwei’s first lecture on November 1 will be streamed live and open to the public in Berlin. More information is on the school’s website.


Nadja Sayej


(Image at top: By Nicolas Buenaventura)

Posted by Nadja Sayej on 10/30 | tags: Ai Weiwei berlin university of the arts Artist Interviews art education

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