Ai Weiwei Blames ‘Sluggish’ German Mentality for Chris Dercon Controversy

The Chinese dissident artist finds that Germans are too obedient.

Ai Weiwei. Courtesy Center for the Creative Arts.

Ai Weiwei is the latest big name to come to Chris Dercon’s defense in the controversy surrounding the outgoing Tate Modern director’s new position as director of Berlin’s Volksbühne theater, which starts in 2017.

In an interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung‘s weekend magazine, the Chinese artist—who relocated to Berlin last year—criticizes the city’s “leftist establishment” and their anti-capitalist attitudes which, according to him, hinder progress. “What’s the problem with having a commercial interest?” he asks journalist Xifan Yang. “Everything is commerce. Without commercial interests we’d still be living in caves.”

Ai opines that the accusations voiced against Dercon’s appointment—claiming he will “sell out” the political values of the storied, avant-garde theater house—stem from a “typically German” mentality. He then goes on to call the reactions of the theater’s staff “tragic.”

Back in June, theater employees and staff affiliated with Berlin’s Volksbühne penned an open letter to the city senate and German culture minister Monika Grütters expressing their “deep concern” over the approaching change of director at the institution. They described Dercon’s plans for the house as “devastating”—not only for the Volksbühne, but for the entire German theater tradition.

Outgoing Tate Modern Director Chris Dercon was unveiled as the new director of the Volsbühne, Berlin in April. Photo: 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair via YouTube

Outgoing Tate Modern Director Chris Dercon was revealed as the new director of the Volksbühne, Berlin in April. Photo 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair via YouTube

In reply to the theater employees, a number of high-profile personalities from the art world, including curators Hans Ulrich Obrist, Okwui Enwezor, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, and Adam Szymczyk, as well as artists Peter Saville and Phillipe Parreno, and architect Rem Koolhaas, among others, signed a letter directed at Berlin’s mayor Michael Müller expressing their support of Dercon. “Dercon is not only eminently positioned to lead the Volksbühne; he is also a bold and inspired choice,” they wrote, adding, “We applaud the Berlin Senate for inviting him to Berlin.”

Dercon was appointed by Berlin’s culture senator Tim Renner to replace current theater director, Frank Castorf, who has been at the helm of the theater for almost 25 years. Renner, a former music producer, has made no secret of his disapproval of Castorf’s long-term reign at the Volksbühne (which is subsidized by the senate, like all state-funded theaters in Germany) and has hinted prior to Dercon’s appointment that the theater must be “rethought.”

Ai worked with Dercon in 2009, when he was the chief curator of Munich’s Haus der Kunst, on the comprehensive exhibition “So sorry.” He tells the interviewer that he finds the current debate laughable, yet typical of the German mentality, which he is very critical of.

Looking back at his first year in the German capital, he concludes, in a reversal of the famous John F. Kennedy quote, that “Ich bin KEIN Berliner” (I am NOT a Berliner). According to the Chinese dissident, there’s a mental “sluggishness” that he finds Germans have, and which scares him. “It’s not funny: when you see a group of pedestrians standing at a red light although there are no cars in sight, I find this kind of obedience grotesque.”

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