Private Collection, Lisbon
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner
On the surface, Coca Cola Vase is filled with oppositions: a Twentieth Century logo festooned upon a two-thousand year old vase; the emblem of American capitalism emblazoned on an ancient Chinese artefact, a unique hand-crafted object adorned with the ornament of mass-production. In painting directly onto the vase – an object of legitimate cultural importance – Ai furthers the iconoclastic vitriol he had introduced in such early works as Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995).
However, there are also details which imbue this piece with a sense of recapitulation and reflection: in terms of aesthetics the cursive arabesque Coca-Cola logo bears more than a passing relevance to the swirling curvilinear decorations that emblazoned other Han-dynasty vases. To this end, it is interesting to note that the logo is hand-painted onto the artefact: although mechanised and mass-produced in implication, it is still the product of human craft.
This sense of reflection and recapitulation is continued in the symbolism of the piece. While Coca-Cola is of course an inherently American product, it is ubiquitous in China. The company has traded in the country since 1920 and is now responsible for more than 50% of national soft drink sales (Shaun Rein, ‘What Coca Cola did Wrong, and Right, in China’, Forbes, March 24th 2009). Furthermore, while the vase upon which this work is based is authentic and ancient it was not intended to be more than a piece of technical craftsmanship. Indeed, vases of this type were similarly ubiquitous in Han dynasty China. Thus, while the vase and its decoration are entirely incompatible in age, they are not entirely disparate in connotation. It could even be argued that their shared imagery creates a fitting allegory for twenty-first century Chinese culture.
While the contrasts of Coca Cola Vase’s composition are inherently surprising, it is not a work intended to shock. Moreover, while Ai did irrevocably alter an ancient artefact in its production, it is not a patricidal piece intended to deface and defile the remnants of his ancestry. In conflating such an emblematic object with such loaded symbolism, the artist forcibly evolves the relics of his cultural history; Coca Cola Vase heralds the dawn of a new Chinese visual language, built on hereditary foundations, catalysed by the contemporary culture of global capitalism, and borne forth through the art of Ai Weiwei.
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