I could so easily have just used an existing shot of Ai Weiwei, or a piece of his work for the identity of the Royal Academy show this coming September.
But I wanted to honour him in a far greater way. His inability to leave China and be a part of the show itself meant, I believed, I should go to him. To make something with him and bring it back - so symbolically bringing him here.
I ended up spending three days in Beijing, two of which were time with Ai Weiwei. I took a host of sketches, ideas of what we could create together, which we shared and discussed on day one.
We agreed to meet at 11am the next day, I had no idea of exactly what we would be doing, except that Ai Weiwei asked I bring my cameras. I jumped in his car with him and we headed off across Beijing. An hour or so later we arrived at his enormous, ex-tractor factory of a studio.
As I walked into the space it took my breath away. It was like an industrial cathedral, bathed in a sawdust light. Everywhere was work in progress, and of such a scale. Giant ceramics, candelabras of glass and bicycles reaching way up into the arching ceiling, dozens of huge re-constructed trees, and so much more. I understand now how Howard Carter felt on the first moment of opening and peering into Tutankhamun’s tomb and exclaiming – “ I see wonderful things.” Ai Weiwei saw the look in my eyes, as I spoke about the quality of the light, and he smiled and just said “I knew this is what we had to do.”
Ai Weiwei left me alone for a while and I wandered off shooting a myriad of details of work in progress. Everywhere - little moments of things being formed, wooden joints, steel frameworks, parts of trees hanging in suspension, people welding, measuring and making. Packing cases, half wrapped pottery, parts of old temples and antique Chinese furniture were everywhere – still, there was an innate order to things.
Eventually Ai Weiwei and I began to find our way amongst the pieces of sculpture and I started to photograph him. We moved with the light that streamed in through hazy windows. As Ai Weiwei was walking to the back of the building, toward the huge doors into the courtyard beyond, an extraordinary pattern of sunlight came through a window high up in the vaulted ceiling. It fell across the back wall and ran along the floor right up to my feet. Weiwei simply stepped into this light and I began shooting and walking backwards till I caught him and the workings of his studio around him.
Later when choosing the final shot with Ai Weiwei, his assistant Darryl told me that the portrait reminded Ai Weiwei of a Rembrandt.
This whole trip was such a gamble, and we had so little time to make something happen that would be good enough to represent the whole London show. Out of nowhere came something so personal. I felt so honoured to have had this time with Ai Weiwei.