New York art dealer and Marcel Duchamp expert Francis Naumann realized a longtime aspiration this spring, when he taught chess to the artist Ai Weiwei at his Beijing studio.
“The idea arose several years ago, when we first met at Art Basel Miami Beach, and again when we met in Belgium a few years later,” Naumann told A.i.A. by phone this week. “The lesson was scheduled for March of last year–when his series of Zodiac heads were shown in front of the Plaza Hotel in New York–but by then he had famously been arrested, and was still in detention.” Ai was held by authorities for 81 days and ultimately charged with tax evasion, and says that he is still under surveillance.
Naumann attributed Ai’s choice of teachers to his interest in Duchamp.
“There are probably thousands of chess players in Beijing alone who would have jumped at the opportunity to teach him,” Naumann said.
“On April 25–as luck would have it, on the occasion of my 65th birthday–my long-delayed session with him finally took place in Beijing, on a beautiful sunny spring afternoon in the garden outside of his studio,” Naumann said.
The dealer was in Beijing for the opening of a show that he co-organized, with New York independent curator John Tancock, for the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art. “Marcel Duchamp and/or/in China” (through June 11) is devoted to works by the French artist and to Chinese artists influenced by his work, such as Huang Yong Ping, Wu Shanzhuan, Wang Luyan, Song Dong and Lee Kit. It includes a work by Ai, Add or Subtract, to which the artist assigned the date 1930-2013 and which incorporates three small framed works by Duchamp that Ai bought from Naumann.
“I was honored when he came to the Ullens opening that evening and introduced me to people as his teacher,” the dealer said.
Naumann points out that though the artist had not yet learned the game, he had previously used it as a metaphor. “In the recent documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, he at one point characterizes his interactions with the Chinese government as a game of chess,” he said.
Ai is criticized by some in China, Naumann pointed out, for making politics rather than art. The dig provides a curious parallel to Duchamp, who for years said, falsely, that he had quit making art in favor of playing chess.
Naumann called the artist a fast learner.
“To facilitate the learning process, I played both sides of the board,” he told A.i.A. “When I then decided to take one side, it was already too late for that side, the position I assumed being too weak to defend. So, although it’s not technically correct, you could say that he beat me in our very first game.”