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Ai Weiwei on Buttons

“In ancient times, buttons were not in use and clothing was often fastened using string. Around 2,000 years ago during the Han Dynasty in China, buttons began to appear. These were often carved from materials such as jade, bone and turquoise. Two buttons from this period in my collection will be on display at Kettle’s Yard as part of their Artist’s Buttons project. My contribution will be 250 buttons modelled on those worn by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

Growing up, I experienced extreme material scarcity, with only one pair of trousers and one pair of shoes. If a button fell off, it was a great loss as it was extremely challenging to find a replacement. When I was 10 years old, my elder brother moved to Beijing. Once while taking a train to return to Xinjiang, where we lived, he saw our cousin on the platform, chasing after the train that had slowly started to move. The cousin then squeezed a paper-wrapped gift through a window. My brother opened it and inside were two buttons. This left a strong impression on me. Buttons were the most precious objects one could gift the family.

Many years later, in 2011, I was secretly arrested and detained in Beijing, and my belt was confiscated. Soon after, the button on my trousers fell off, leaving me with the task of holding up my only pair of trousers by hand when I walked on those six tiles in the tiny room. When the investigators asked me if I had any requests, I said I needed to mend the button. They replied that it was understood. Nothing happened. Each day, I walked holding onto my trousers, making the two soldiers standing next to me feel very uncomfortable. These soldiers were from the guard of honour and wore striking golden buttons that were manufactured to commemorate the founding of the PLA on 1 August 1927. They stood before me with the utmost formality of military people, their gazes fixed. I was instructed not to look at their faces, so I focused on their buttons, which have been revered from my birth until today as symbols of the unassailable dignity of the army and the honour of the country. As for my button, despite repeated requests, the soldiers always responded that they understood, but nothing was done.

Finally, after more than two months of secret detention, a soldier walked in with a button and a threaded needle. He then started to sew the button on my trousers in front of the surveillance camera. Those at the other end of the camera watched as he made each gesture to fix the button. Apparently, the solder had not done anything like this before, so the result was rather askew. It was only after a long discussion within the bureaucratic system that I had received the replacement button, so it was already a significant bestowal.

Five years later, I had the opportunity to leave China. On Twitter I stumbled upon a British factory’s tweet about discarding and burying 30 tons of buttons. I felt that it would be a great loss, as these buttons were from different periods in the past century and had diverse styles. I thus asked if I could have them. With the help of social media posts and news reports in the UK, I was eventually able to acquire these buttons. Today, I am the proud owner of one of the largest collections of buttons in the world. Tens of thousands of buttons still reside in my warehouse.”

Ai Weiwei, originally published in crafts magazine

Members of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA)