How Ai Weiwei built a pavilion in London – by remote control

The artist tells Clifford Coonan how he used Skype to escape confinement in Beijing
  • @cliffordcoonan

It may be one of the most spectacular pieces yet by China's most famous dissident artist, but there's a good chance that Ai Weiwei won't get to see his latest work of art, the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion in London – at least not for the time being.

Ai is under constant surveillance by 15 security cameras and teams of police officers in Beijing. He can leave his home, but is not allowed to leave the capital. It is hardly an ideal situation for an artist collaborating with the architects Herzog & de Meuron on the pavilion in Hyde Park, which this year is a subversive cavity sunk into the ground, with a cork-lined interior and a disc-shaped pool of water for a roof.

"Herzog & de Meuron are old friends, and we were asked if we were interested and we started the whole project. We all know the nature of my situation – I can't really travel. So we took several Skype sessions to come up with the concepts," Ai told The Independent.

The task was made easier because Ai had worked with the Swiss architects on the Bird's Nest stadium for the Beijing Olympics, even though he later distanced himself from the building because he felt it was too totalitarian.

In April last year, he was picked up by police at Beijing airport and then disappeared. His arrest caused a global outcry, but when he was freed after 81 days he was ordered to be silent. This hasn't worked. The bearded, stocky 55-year-old remains an icon for China's dissidents and activists, but is still stuck in Beijing.

He puts a positive spin on this. "I can travel in Beijing, and it's quite large. I can go to the park and other places. Of course I'd like to see the pavilion in London and see old friends, and see how it's existing. In life we have a lot of regrets and it's part of life," he said.

He is suing the Chinese government over a £1.5m tax evasion penalty it levied on the company that markets his work.

He says the pavilion is an "archaeological gesture". The aim of the design is to encourage visitors to look beneath the surface of the park, and back in time. And despite what you might think, Ai really enjoyed creating art over the internet.

"Using Skype is lovely. I think all projects should be done with Skype. You only have to communicate the spiritual part," he said. "This is a new definition of this pavilion, which is very different. The pavilion concept is about memory and questioning. It's to offer something the public will hopefully enjoy at this moment, there with the Olympics."

Ai is not a big fan of the Olympics, one senses. But he says there can be no comparison between the Games in London and Beijing. "I hope the Olympics in London won't have any problems for the people who live there. But it's a civil society, the Olympics is made for the citizens."