Private Collection, Switzerland
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2009
Ai Weiwei cited in: Larry Warsh Ed., Weiwei-isms, Princeton 2013, p. 80.
Comprising an aerial view of China’s landmass, Ai Weiwei’s native country rises triumphantly from the ground in glorious three-dimensions; artfully fashioned from ancient wood retrieved from the ruins of demolished Qing dynasty temples, Map of China is a work that draws together both traditional craftsmanship and provocative contemplation.
A rebel of the Chinese art world, Ai has unapologetically exposed the contradictions and corruption within China’s current cultural and socio-political situation; a crusade that has resulted in numerous clashes with the government and its policies. Despite the restrictive difficulties imposed upon him by Chinese authorities, Ai continues to create conceptually charged artworks, self-curated exhibitions, and written texts published through his online blog – all of which emphasise his incredibly diverse and subversive creativity and have cemented his status, not only as an artistic heavy-weight, but also a political force to be reckoned with.
For the present work, Ai reclaimed scraps of tieli (also known as ironwood) from dismantled Qing dynasty temples; these ancient places of worship were demolished following the Cultural Revolution in order to make way for newer developments in China’s rapidly expanding major cities. In piecing together these wooden fragments of the past, Ai has employed an old mortise-and-tenon joinery technique to merge the individual blocks of wood into a monumental jigsaw of China’s geographical outline. Herein, Ai’s incorporation of traditional methods and materials imparts new life into old techniques, he presents an occasion whereby historical skills can be re-framed and re-thought in the present, so that they can be seen by a new generation and in a new light. The conceptual genius of Map of China therefore emerges from its ability to poignantly interweave the past and the present.
The concept for the present work planted the seed for Ai’s later series of large-scale sculptures created out of re-claimed antique furniture and temple fragments; works such as with Kippe (2006) and Grapes (2008). In fact, Map of China is so emblematic of his beliefs that Ai has returned to its intriguing concept multiple times, creating various versions that differ in size and height from 2004 through to 2008. As such, iterations of Map of China developed in parallel to Ai’s rapid rise to international fame, which was due, in part, to his work on Beijing’s 2008 ‘Bird’s Nest’ Olympic stadium. Collaborating with Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, Ai designed this monumental and now iconic architectural landmark for China. The end result signalled a period of renewed power, change, and growth for the country as it stepped into the Twenty-First Century and onto the international stage.
Ai looks to China’s wealth of traditional materials and antiques as resources for his readymade sculptural compositions; these are the kind of objects that are symbolically infused with Chinese culture – such as wood from traditional homes or temples, porcelain from imperial kilns, dynastic urns, freshwater pearls, black and red lacquer, as well as tea, white marble, and jade stones – and together they constitute the building blocks of Ai’s diverse artistic practice (Karen Smith, ‘Giant Provocateur’, in: Karen Smith et al., Ai Weiwei, London 2009, p. 56).
In turning towards culturally historic objects for readymade materials, Ai explained that “the alteration of a readymade good preserves and extends the narrative structure of the old object itself, including its past, the history it bears and the marks it has acquired while being used” (Ai Weiwei in conversation with Liu Yongre, in: Exh. Cat., Taipei, Taipei Fine Arts Museum, Ai Weiwei Absent, 2014, p. 7). In other words, despite having ties to the past, the meaning and significance of a culturally historic object is always subject to re-interpretation – changing along with time itself.
This transformative action, which lies at the heart of Ai's artistic practice, is revolutionary and rebellious to the point where some dare to call it iconoclastic. This is particularly encapsulated by Ai’s photographic tryptich Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, which records the split-second destruction of a Chinese artefact that has survived for over 2000 years. In so doing, he boldly holds a mirror to the Chinese government, critiquing its historically destructive policies following the country’s Cultural Revolution. In the present work however, Ai brings together these fragments of the past, and rather than breaking them apart, opens his practice up to difficult questions concerning the uneasy relationship between China’s increasingly modern development and the destruction of its traditional culture.
“The world is changing”, he explains, “This is the fact. Artists work hard hoping to change it according to their own aspirations” (Ai Weiwei cited in: Mami Kataoka, ‘According to What? A Questioning Attitude’, in: Exh. Cat., Tokyo, Mori Art Museum, According to What?, 2009-14, p. 8). With a heritage forged in the Qing dynasty through to its present day reality as a contemporary Chinese masterpiece, the present work delivers an extremely powerful metaphor for the ongoing changes in China’s opulent history and culture. What’s more is that it not only marks a pivotal moment in the development of hundreds and thousands of years of Chinese art, but also within the development of Ai’s own artistic career.
Ai’s Map of China is thus a personal testament to China’s changing image. It demonstrates the artist's awareness of his relationship to his country within the greater world; for Ai, Map of China is not just a critique of the present moment, nor a nostalgic lamentation for the past, but a monumental salute to change itself – past, present, and future.
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