Ai Weiwei defies China with Serpentine installation

Artist barred from communicating with outside world to design 2012 Pavilion – via Skype
  • @kevinJrawlinson

Ai Weiwei has been imprisoned, barred from leaving his homeland by the Chinese government and told not to speak to anyone outside its borders. That has not stopped the dissident artist from designing this year's Pavilion at London's Serpentine Gallery.

While the temporary Kensington Gardens project might not represent logisitical difficulties on the same scale as the 91,000-seat stadium he designed for the Beijing Olympics, it does pose some problems of its own – the design team is being forced to communicate over internet messaging service Skype because of the restrictions placed on Weiwei by the Chinese authorities.

Announcing the decision to reunite him with the architects that he worked with on Beijing's famous Bird's Nest Olympic stadium, a spokeswoman for the Serpentine said the gallery could only hope that Mr Ai would be able to fly to Britain to fulfill the commission in person. "If he cannot, the team will be able to carry on as it is," she added.

The artist was detained for 81 days last year at an unkown location after being arrested in April while trying to board a plane in Beijing. The Chinese authorities are reviewing a decision to fine his design company £1.55m for tax offences.

The Gallery's directors were keen to avoid politicising the decision to appoint Mr Ai yesterday. Julia Peyton-Jones and Hans Ulrich Obrist said: "This is a project about art and architecture. It came about because it is an Olympic year and it is the same team which worked on the Beijing stadium."

Ai Weiwei will once again work with design team Herzog and de Meuron on the project. They plan to excavate part of the Gallery's gardens, rediscovering some of the remains of former installations. Each of the 11 columns in the subterranean Pavilion will represent one of its predecessors – an annual feature of Gallery since 2000 – with a 12th added by the designers. It will also have a reflective roof similar to the 2009 installation, which will collect rainwater or be used to host events.

The designers' intention is that the roof will provide optical illusions, appearing to be above the ground from some angles and below it from others. "The sky will also be visible in it and people will be able to see the clouds rolling across it," the Gallery spokeswoman added.

The installation will run from June to October 2012.

Past pavilions

* The 2009 installation, designed by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, included a reflective roof, similar to that planned for this year's work.

* Last year's Pavilion was a "garden within a garden". Its walls enclosed a lawn and flowerbed, in which its designer Peter Zumthor hoped visitors could "sit, walk [and] observe".

* For the Gallery's 40th anniversary, French architect Jean Nouvel came up with a striking red installation to reflect "British images of traditional telephone boxes, post boxes and London buses".