Just two years after leaving Berlin – and its troubles with Germany – to move to the UK, Ai Weiwei told Artnet News he was “shocked” to discover that a company supposed to look after and sell her former Berlin apartment instead would have used the space without her approval.
The Chinese artist claims that a real estate company with an office in Berlin that was helping to sell the apartment did several “unauthorized” publicity shoots and staged events at his former home that he had no knowledge of. The company disputed the claim.
The Chinese artist bought the apartment in Prenzlauer Berg, a rapidly gentrifying district of former East Berlin, in 2015, while the dissident activist was still under house arrest in Beijing, China. Ai told Artnet News that at the time he bought the apartment, he was only able to bring his son and his son’s mother to Germany, while the artist waited for his passport to be returned by the Chinese authorities.
When he finally resettled in Europe, with the support of the German government, Ai and his family lived in Berlin for several years. The Greifswalderstrasse home, Ai said, has always been a positive space filled with touching memories. “This place gave me a long-lost sense of security,” Ai said. “Since the day I was born, I’ve been forced to constantly move with my parents, repeatedly leaving one place and arriving in a new one, and constantly negotiating my identities.” He added that this sense of security the apartment gave him and his family made it harder to bear his discovery of alleged abuse.
Although he has a studio in Berlin, Ai decided to leave Germany in 2019, publicly citing political and social issues there as his reason for leaving. In June 2021, a bespoke real estate agency was hired to sell his apartment, offering marketing services to do so.
In early January, Ai said he was shocked to learn from his assistant that the apartment was being used for a film shoot for a chocolate brand. “She called to tell me that about 20 people were filming in my apartment,” Ai said. “I could never have imagined that the agency was renting out my apartment to third parties for profit.” The company disputes the claim that there were 20 people in the apartment, adding that the purpose of allowing a video shoot was to “attract…and other potential buyers in order to get the best price possible. “.
The company, according to a contract termination letter sent by Ai’s attorney, which was shared with Artnet News, also made an additional copy of his keys. The company disputes this, saying they were allowed access to the apartment. But no one from the real estate agency was there, according to Ai’s assistant, who visited the apartment when the film company was working there.
Ai said it transpired that the apartment had also been used for various commercial projects over the past six months without her knowledge, including product launches, advertising and branding events. He said he and his team had found dozens of posts online with images taken inside the house promoting more than 35 brands or companies. A public relations associate had posted about the apartment on his business Instagram account, describing the place as a “second home”. The company said the third-party realtor has been notified of the collaborations and that Ai’s assistant visits the apartment frequently and “is part of the preparations from time to time.”
And although Ai said most of the events and filming at his Berlin apartment took place without his knowledge, he admitted to having approved a marketing project with the luxury paint brand Farrow & Ball, which painted his apartment and held a photo shoot there, although he said he was never sent the final photos or told when or where they would appear online. He said he was surprised to find them all over the internet when he and his team looked into the matter this month. “People are detached from moral constraints and exaggerate the beauty and happiness of life,” he said in his comment to Artnet News. “It’s a popular disease of our time.”
In its response to Ai, which the artist shared with Artnet News, the company said hosting such marketing events was part of its strategy to get the highest price possible for the apartment. They added that the company had an offer on the table and that a consultant from the New York art world was interested.
Ai described the situation as a return to a “nightmare” of having his personal boundaries crossed. “When I saw my ‘home’ interpreted in a language and method so foreign to mine, it shocked me far more than its destruction would have and cast a great shadow over my memory,” said the artist. “When I saw my home turned into a vessel for a group of commercial parasites, my sense of identity was once again overwhelmed with alienation. Only my familiar bewilderment remains.
Nor is the experience likely to help improve Ai’s tarnished feelings for the country he once called home. The artist moved to Cambridge in 2019, citing rising populism and anti-refugee sentiments in Germany, as well as his intimacy with China, as reasons for leaving. “Germany is not an open society,” he told local media at the time. “It’s a society that wants to be open, but above all it protects itself.” Although the UK was not much more progressive, the artist later added, at least the people there were “polite”.
The straw that broke the camel’s back for Ai came when he reported that he and his family had been harassed by a taxi driver in Berlin. The entertainer said when he filed a complaint with the police, an official blamed the dispute on “cultural differences,” a term Ai called “a stylish wrapper for structural discrimination” that “ruthlessly erases all the injustice suffered by a foreigner”.
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