Stefano Tonchi Describes W's Ai Weiwei Shoot

59272hkawaranaweilwarsh 120508 664 Stefano Tonchi Describes W's Ai Weiwei ShootHe may be under house arrest in Beijing, but that hasn’t stopped Ai Weiwei from expressing his creative side. Recently named the most powerful artist in the world, Mr. Ai remotely collaborated with W magazine for a spread in their November issue.

At the L.E.S. gallery Lehmann Maupin last Wednesday night, The Observer spoke with W magazine’s editor-in-chief Stefano Tonchi at a dinner celebrating the unveiling of new photographs by Nan Goldin. We asked him about the project. “First of all, you know, it’s all about the human contact,” Mr. Tonchi explained. With video conferencing now a standard convenience of modern society, however, human contact  hardly requires tactility.

“He was very detail oriented,” Mr. Tonchi said of the artist. “He went thorough all the ideas, the clothes, the model and he really, like, was with us,” he said. Shooting through the night (daytime in Beijing, Mr. Tonchi noted) at Rikers Island, the production team had Mr. Ai on livestream. “You know, sometimes we would carry him around on a large laptop and sometimes it was on small devices. Sometimes we were just like on an iPhone,” Mr. Tonchi described.

Although taking directions from the virtual presence of a dissident artist under house arrest may seem terribly complicated, Mr. Tonchi said the operation went quite smoothly: “We would send images to him and he would look at the images and… immediately respond.”

The importance of the shoot was not lost on Mr. Tonchi. “It was a cry for freedom and a way to tell, you know, about his story, his history, his imprisonment and life in China though fashion images,” he told The Observer.

Mr. Tonchi admitted that at some points the project did seem surreal. “He was on our laptop, and he was looking into the laptop, and behind him there was another screen with the images we just have shot. So it was like looking at you in China!” he said, clearly still marveling at the whole affair.

While confined to his studio for the foreseeable future, Mr. Ai seems to have no trouble stretching his artistic muscles. Here’s hoping his virtual excursions don’t further antagonize the Chinese government.