As an appropriative work, Surveillance Camera calls to mind the artistic production of Andy Warhol and his commandeering of pop culture’s visual culture for his own devices. Duchampian in vigor, Ai similarly utilizes the idea of the ready-made to comment on present-day culture. As the artist comments: “Tradition is only a readymade. It’s for us to make a new gesture – to use it as a reference, more as a starting point than conclusion. Of course, there are very different attitudes and interpretations about our past and our memory of it. And ours is never a complete one, but is broken. In China, but also in my practice.” (Ai Weiwei cited in: Larry Warsh, ed., Weiwei-isms, Princeton 2013, p. 80). While the Duchampian ready-made may be evoked in the present work, it’s marble form prohibits direct comparison. Carved by traditional Chinese craftsmen, Surveillance Camera and Plinth speaks to a complex history of craftsmanship in China and its diminished place in the wake of the country's rapid and recent industrial revolution. It is a subject that Ai returns to often within his practice, in many ways, nuancing his Duchampian conceptual framework with specific issues surrounding Chinese artistic traditions.
The concept for Surveillance Camera and Plinth came to fruition after Ai discovered cameras and listening devices in his studio. The present work therefore refers to the artist’s personal experience of detainment and round the clock surveillance. Surveillance Camera and Plinth can therefore be considered in tandem with S.A.C.R.E.D, an installation which exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts in September 2015 as part of Ai’s major solo exhibition. Depicting six scenes from the artist’s eighty one day incarceration, each unit of S.A.C.R.E.D offers dioramas containing half-life size effigies of the artist and his captors, documenting painstaking moments of his captivity in detail. An outspoken critic of the communist regime, Ai was placed under house arrest following the seizing of his passport in April 2011. Held for nearly three months, Ai endured extremely arduous conditions with guards constantly monitoring his activities. Interrogated fifty times, Ai experienced the full weight of governmental intervention and suppression.
It is a testament to Ai’s tenacity and indomitable spirit that he is able to hand his political altercations with the Chinese government with the wit on display in the present work. In then repurposing the camera into an entirely new form, Ai points strongly and unequivocally to the potency and rapidity of the social, economic and political, and artistic changes facing us today. The contemporary ‘Big Brother’ culture in which we reside sees CCTV cameras ever omnipresent in major cities across the world, signifying an increased intrusive handling of the body politic. Further disintegrating the boundaries of public and private space, Ai’s prolific and celebrated socially conscious work is complex and thoughtful, an insignia of defiance and protest.
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