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Details & Cataloguing

Contemporary Art Asia: China, Korea, Japan

|
New York

Ai Weiwei
B. 1957
CHANDELIER
crystal, light bulbs, and metal
216 by 159 in. 548.6 by 403.9 cm.
Executed in 2002.
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This work is from an edition of 2.

Provenance

Private Collection, Australia

Exhibited

Chicago, Carrie Secrist Gallery, The Last Seduction: A Welcome Surrender to Beauty, April 27 - July, 2007
Chicago, Carrie Secrist Gallery, TINY huge, January -February 2005
New York, Robert Miller Gallery, Ai Weiwei, October 2004

Literature

Jonathan Napack and Chin-Chin Yap, Ai Weiwei Works: Beijing 1993 -2003, Beijing, 2003, pp. 126-127, illustrated in color

Catalogue Note

Throughout the summer of this year, Ai Weiwei's works have dominated the major quinquennial exhibition Documenta 12, as press coverage of the latter has foregrounded Ai's logistically absurdly ambitious project Fairytale, which entailed transporting 1001 Chinese people from all walks of life to the exhibition site of Kassel, Germany, along with 1001 Qing Dynasty wooden chairs.  Ai's Template, a sculpture constructed from carved doors and windows salvaged from old Chinese houses, also drew media attention at Documenta, particularly following its destruction in a powerful storm.  Over the last few years Ai Weiwei has risen to a position of prominence in the international art arena, fluidly switching between the roles of artist, architect, urban planner, curator, and cultural commentator.  His home and adjacent office in Beijing teem with activity, with youthful future architects filling the office space and international visitors and media, as well as local art world figures, filing through.  Fascination with Ai Weiwei is such that his blog receives ten thousand hits per day.

The works on offer here span almost two decades of Ai's career, from his New York period to the present, and represent important themes and concerns of the artist.  Ai moved to New York in 1981 following a period of study at the Beijing Film Academy and after participating in the best-known dissident artists' exhibition of that era, the first Stars group exhibition, hung on a fence adjacent to the National Gallery in Beijing in 1979.  Although he studied briefly at the Parsons School of Design and the Art Students League, it was exposure to the works of such artists as Jasper Johns, Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol that was to have the greatest influence on Ai Weiwei's future direction. Ai's current practice is compared frequently with that of Warhol, in part due to the extreme degree to which his life is now documented, plus the development of an entourage (both formal and informal) that surrounds the artist.

While in New York, Ai Weiwei began working with ready-mades, a mode that remains important in his oeuvre to this day.  Objects from his New York period are constructed of everyday materials, such as coat hangers (Hanging Man, 1985), shoes (One-Man Shoe, 1987), violins and shovels (Violin, 1985), and rain coats (Five Raincoats Holding up a Star, 1985 and Safe Sex, 1986).  Safe Sex (Lot 66) consists of a raincoat completely buttoned for full protection, with a condom attached at crotch height.  In writing about this work in an entry about the artist for Oxford University Press's Grove Art Online dictionary, I described it as humorously "commenting on the problematics of intimacy." Chin-Chin Yap went further in making a connection between Safe Sex and sexual practices of the time:  "The closest one comes to any sort of agenda [in Ai's New York period works], perhaps, would appear to be a comment on alternative lifestyles borne out by the raincoat installations."[1]

Returning to Beijing in 1993, Ai adopted Chinese cultural materials as the basis for his continuing exploration of the ready-made, finding in them a wealth of potential for commenting upon the meaning of art as well as contemporary life.  As a connoisseur of antiques, Ai recognized that while prized antiquities achieve a position where their value pre-empts their consideration as art objects, those of lesser value and importance slip into the oblivion of disregard.  Thus, to construct works of art from historical objects affords the original objects a new, highly-charged life as they hover in contradictory status between the past and present.  The salvaged doors and windows of Template are a case in point, transformed from utilitarian architectural decorations, to refuse, to art object—then destroyed by storm, only to be reaffirmed subsequently as art object.  The materials of which Gift from Beijing (Lot 65) is comprised have followed a similar path, from architectural components to refuse to art object.

Both Chandelier (Lot 63) and Gift from Beijing (both 2002) are inspired by the ongoing building boom in Beijing, the former offering sly commentary on the aesthetics of new construction while the latter memorializes the destruction of a way of life.  For well over a decade, the drive to reinvent Beijing as a modern metropolis has resulted in the wholesale razing of the old-style courtyard houses (siheyuan) constructed around the Forbidden City within the Second Ring Road.  These houses were arrayed along allies (hutongs) that formed tight-knit neighborhoods dating back to the Ming and Qing Dynasties.  In destroying the hutongs, the traditional way of life vanishes from Beijing as collateral damage.  Salvaging bricks from these historical dwellings, Ai Weiwei had presentation boxes constructed for them from tieli wood taken from destroyed Qing Dynasty temples.  Gift from Beijing thereby reaffirms the value of a discarded way of life, affording the humble building materials of old new status as contemporary art object.

The materials employed in the making of Gift from Beijing—bricks and salvaged wood—are signature materials for Ai Weiwei.  Since embarking on his career as architect and urban planner—a role that has grown to demand the majority of his time, particularly since his involvement as consultant on the Beijing Olympic Stadium and his development of the Caochangdi arts district on the eastern side of Beijing—the majority of Ai's Beijing projects have been constructed of gray bricks.  Small projects reflecting his penchant for working with bricks include an artist's book with the color and dimensions of a contemporary gray brick (Ai Weiwei:  Beijing 10/2003, 2003) and a future LEGO brick construction planned for the project Building Asia Brick by Brick.  Ai scouts far beyond Beijing for temples slated for destruction, scavenging valuable woods imported by temple builders long ago from as far away as Southeast Asia.  He redeploys this wood in a multitude of projects, some of which preserve the original form of the pillars and beams, others of which reduce the salvaged pieces to valuable raw material.  In Gift from Beijing, the wood is reformed in elegant proportions as repository for the minimalist brick; together paired as work of art they serve as a poignant record of Beijing's past and a statement of the value that should be placed on the old-style way of life, even as the government colludes in its destruction.

While Gift from Beijing is modest in scale and unassuming in form, Chandelier is grandiose and flashy, reflecting the competitive drive among Beijing's builders for ever greater opulence.  At over four meters tall, the chandelier would suitably adorn the foyer of a grand office building or hotel.  Divorced from such a location, however, and lowered to the level inhabited by the viewer, Chandelier overwhelms its viewers, exemplifying the urge toward competitively conspicuous consumption that is common among China's nouveaux riches.  This work was first installed at the Guangdong Museum of Art in Guangzhou as one of a handful of new works created for the First Guangzhou Triennial in 2002.  Hung outdoors within the close confines of a specially constructed framework of scaffolding, the scale of Chandelier was particularly overpowering and the sense of dislocation extreme.  A subsequent installation at the Flemish Opera (Vlaamse Opera) in Gent (2004) contrasted the raw volume of Chandelier with the delicacy of the building's sumptuous Neo-Baroque interior, including a smaller, exquisitely wrought chandelier.  Ai's work has also hung in the warehouse-style gallery of China's best-known collector of contemporary Chinese art, Guan Yi.

The Wave (2005) transforms into porcelain the highly stylized forms typically found in traditional Chinese paintings of waves such as date back to Southern Song painter Ma Yuan's (active ca. 1190-ca. 1225) wave studies and extend to Japanese ukiyo-e artist Katsushika Hokusai's (1760-1849) widely recognized Great Wave off Kanagawa:  the crest of each wave breaks into fingers of spray curving forward.  Translating the imagery from two dimensions to three was a technically demanding exercise, particularly as Ai's design required the porcelain artisans at Jingdezhen to pile the waves layer upon layer, beyond what is found in traditional two-dimensional imagery.  Is the artist suggesting, tongue-in-cheek, that contemporary culture can improve on the past—through the move into three-dimensions, substituting the precious material of porcelain for paper, and amplifying the onslaught of the waves—or is the point that in the present, culture seems to rush onward, waves breaking one upon another in rapid succession rather than allowing any single wave the chance to crest in isolated glory?  A sibling to the present work, in blue and white porcelain, is currently on view at the Museum Fridericianum in Kassel as part of the Documenta XII exhibition.  These works differ in their breaker formations and the representation of low eddies incised into the clay base; indeed, ten unique wave works, each slightly different in its blue-green coloration and surface details, were fabricated by the Jingdezhen artisans.  A ready-made of a different kind, The Wave continues Ai Weiwei's appreciative reinvention of historical forms. 

-Britta Erickson

[1] "A Handful of Dust," Ai Weiwei Works: Beijing 1993-2003, p. 13.

Contemporary Art Asia: China, Korea, Japan

|
New York