“Art is an action that transforms our thoughts. It is a process that turns nothing into something.”
A Provocateur in Art
Ai Weiwei is not only one of China’s most controversial contemporary artists, but also an influential architect, curator, and blogger. He has had over 50 architectural projects in China, including the “Bird’s Nest” in Beijing, a collaboration with the Swiss architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron. Ai, who spent twelve years in the United States, is deeply influenced by Western modernists like Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, and Jasper Johns. Subversion, appropriation, juxtaposition, satire, and the ready-made are some of the strategies he uses in his installations. Hopeful for change and intensely critical at the same time, Ai’s works are always in dialogue with the sociopolitical realities of contemporary China, and he may be regarded as a mirror of his country’s rapid transformations in the recent decades.
Although Ai has always been marginalised and even denounced in China, he has been invited by many international museums to exhibit his works, including the solo show Sunflower Seeds in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern in London; Ai Weiwei: According to What currently on tour in the United States; and, earlier in his career, Documenta in Kassel, Germany. Mami Kataoka, Chief Curator of the Mori Art Museum, encapsulates Ai’s significance in an essay dedicated to According to What: “He seems to be asking us not to observe China from a distance as the “other” but to consider the country from our own context, and in so doing, seeking universal values that connect China and the rest of the world at a fundamental level.”1 Using his art and actions as forms of intervention, Ai Weiwei hopes to affect social change in China. The three lots on offer in the present sales are some of Ai’s most well-known furniture installations, including one from the renowned Map of China series (lot 147); Table with Three Legs (Day Sale lot 911), a reassembly of deconstructed classical furniture; and Divina Proportione (Day Sale lot 912), a sculpture made with the traditional Chinese mortise-and-tenon joinery technique. Comparable to Duchamp’s seminal Fountain, these three works by Ai Weiwei were groundbreaking, revolutionary gestures and pivotal moments in the development of contemporary Chinese art.
Ai Weiwei was a member of the Star Group, the first post-Cultural Revolution avant-garde art organization in China. In 1979 and 1980, then a student at the Beijing Film Academy, he co-organized two “Star Art Exhibitions” with other young artists in Beijing. Ai’s early oil paintings were close to works by Monet and the Post-Impressionists, and radically different from the officially sanctioned style of Socialist Realism. As the first Star Exhibition’s slogan—“Use our own eyes to know the world; use our own paint brushes and sculpting knives to participate in the world”—suggests, what Ai Weiwei pursued at the time was the freedom of self-expression. Ai’s preoccupation with independence and freedom originated in his own experiences during the Cultural Revolution, when his poet father Ai Qing, once an important left-wing writer and intellectual, was persecuted as a Rightist. In 1967, the Ais were sent to Xinjiang, and Ai Qing was forbidden from writing and forced to work as a toilet cleaner.
The two Star Art Exhibitions excited widespread discussion but did not receive official approval. As one of their organizers, Ai Weiwei decided that he needed to leave China: “There was no personal space, but only psychological personal space.” He found China’s social environment stifling. He went to the United States in 1982 and enrolled in the Parsons School of Design in New York in the following year. Through his teacher Sean Scully, he was exposed to Dadaism and Surrealism, as well as important Western artists like Johns, Warhol, and Duchamp. Although Ai left Parsons, they would exert an immense influence on him, as can be seen in the works that he produced during his 12 years in the US, including Hanging Man (1985), Safe Sex (1986), One Man Shoe (1987), and Violin (1987). These “ready-made” works of art, consisting of reassembled and repurposed objects, have a simple and direct impact. Notably, they are almost entirely devoid of explicitly Chinese elements—Ai Weiwei did not use his Chinese background as a way to enter the New York art world.
Chinese themes began to appear in his art only in 1993, when he returned to his home country. He was disappointed by the changes that happened during the intervening 12 years: China now felt even more oppressive to the individual than before. As he expressed skepticism towards China’s economic and social developments in his work, Ai became increasingly influential as an artist. Tackling “China” as a core subject and topic doubtlessly elevated his art to a different level. He retained the postmodern techniques of appropriation, pastiche, and ready-mades from his New York period, but now employed them in a new context and often on Chinese antiques. Early works from his Chinese period include Coca-Cola Vase (1994), a Han dynasty vase painted with a Coca-Cola brand image, and the famous serial photographs of himself Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995). Since 1997, Ai Weiwei’s series of works made from classical furniture have achieved global renown. Notably, these works are not editioned; each is a unique assembly of antique furniture and wood.
On offer in the day sale, Table with Three Legs is a representative work of this series. Here Ai Weiwei has removed a leg from a Ming-dynasty table and repurposed and reassembled it using the mortise-and-tenon joinery technique. Infused with Dadaism, it represents the search for a new Chinese artist language, but at the same time evokes nostalgia for China’s craft traditions. The transformed table seems a mirror of contemporary China. As Ai himself says, “We move too fast. Memory is what we can grasp. Memory is that which we most hold on to as we move at a rapid pace.” More importantly, the work re-presents traditional culture in a new form and reexamines the significance of traditional art and craft for the Chinese people. The sculpture appears “useless,” but this “uselessness” is precisely what makes it powerful as cultural critique.
In the Map of China series, which followed his antique furniture works, Ai Weiwei directs his questioning towards the destruction of traditional culture caused by economic development. The lot on offer, also entitled Map of China, is one of the most famous pieces in the eponymous series. Over 3 meters in length and made with the mortise-and-tenon technique from ironwood recycled from a demolished Qing-dynasty temple, this bench reveals a map of China when seen from the side and satirizes China’s rapid economic development. The 2004 prototype of this work was the beginning of the Map of China series. Another well-known series that shares the same title are of floor sculptures in the shape of China. Ai Weiwei later expanded this series into the large-scale installations Fragments (2005), Through (2007-8), and Temple (2007). Fragments is assembled from ironwood fragments from a demolished temple and appears as a map of China from above. Completed over one year, Through was a collection of antique desks and chairs penetrated by several large recycled wood beams. This powerful installation, enveloping the viewer like a cage, was no doubt a kind of metaphor for Chinese reality. Divina Proportione is a three-dimensional rendition, in Chinese huanghuali wood and using Ming-dynasty technique, of a drawing of a perfect sphere by Leonardo da Vinci. It raises the question of how to represent Chinese traditions in the face of Western culture.
Ai Weiwei’s is not simply nostalgia for the past, but quite the opposite. He subverts the form and function of art and culture. As Karen Smith, the famous curator of contemporary Chinese art, puts it, “[Ai] question[s] the value of all, and to unsettle the status quo, much as the interventions and actions of Duchamp and Joseph Beuys achieved.”2 In fact, Ai Weiwei has since then gone on to the forefront of social movements. In his largescale performance art piece, Fairytale (2007), he invited 1001 Chinese through his blog to participate in Documenta. In the following year, in the wake of the Sichuan earthquake, he created a series of works even more explicitly focused on social issues.
Ai Weiwei’s favorite word is “act”. Smith observes that “power of change” lies at the core of his work. And the artist himself has said, “All humanity lives according to certain immutable conditions of life and of society. That has always been so. Artists should always aim to challenge these whenever the
1 Mami Kataoka, “According to What? – A Questioning Attitude,” Ai Weiwei - According to What, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Mori Art Museum and Del Monico Books Prestel, 2012, p.10
2 Karen Smith, Giant Provocateur, Ai Weiwei, Phaidon, 2009, p.62
3 Ai Weiwei/Karen Smith, “Where Architect Fear to Tread”, op. cit., p.58
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