You're less like to hear about the 1,001 Ming-/Qing-dynasty wooden chairs he's distributed in rings and rows throughout documenta. Here weary visitors can take a break or discuss the things they've seen, but the chairs also represent something else, tied to his Fairytale project. See, Ai had 1,001 Chinese citizens flown to Kassel, all dressed in matching clothes and carrying matching luggage. Sleeping in a former factory space, these “commissioned” visitors have been wandering Kassel and documenta for the duration of the show. On documenta's website you can read a little bit about the experiences of a few of the visitors.
Philip Tinari writes in the Summer 2007 issue of Artforum (in the article from which I'm cribbing most everything written in this post, by the way),
In its emphasis on changing individuals by changing their material circumstances, Fairytale resonates with both midcentury Western architectural idealism and current Chinese political ideology.... Though practical considerations have necessitating the participants into five groups, each staying in Kassel for just eight days, the project... will nevertheless effect a significant, albeit temporary, demographic shift in the smallish city.
Though it's the amusing media event surrounding the collapsed Template that's made Ai's name synonymous with documenta XII, it's his Fairytale project that is wholly consumed with the very questions this year's documenta organizers set out to explore. Ai's work is concerned with the role of modernism (admittedly, a helplessly vague word) not so much in the museum or the gallery, but in day-to-day life. This is modernism not as form or method, but lifestyle. There are hundreds of bones to pick here, but one stands out especially (and probably deliberately): what to make of naming the project “Fairytale”?
In time, Fairytale will doubtless evolve into a couple documentary photographs and a few paragraphs of text in some exhibition catalogs, but Ai and documenta hope that maybe for 1,001 Chinese people, and for an entire German city, it will endure as something more. And although this is kind of a corny place to end this post, I'm sitting outside using the University's free WiFi, and I think its going to rain shortly. Also, the ducks here are getting sort of bold.