The work consists of thirty-two stools, dated to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), and woven together with seats pointed inwards and legs pointed out so as to form a sort of high-sided semi-spherical bowl. Ai has asserted that these sturdy tri-pronged stools are a fundamental expression of the centuries-old aesthetic of rural China; they are crafted with no nails or glue, and every countryside home would have one or more, often passed down from generation to generation.
Of course, this work does not represent the first occasion when Ai has relied upon the alteration or destruction of historic objects – we might examine his extensive work with Han Dynasty and Neolithic urns. Indeed, nor does it mark the first time in which he had used found objects as modular building units within larger and more complex sculptures – his celebrated bicycle works were being created in the early 2000s. However, from the way that the artist has continued and extrapolated the motif over the ensuing years, we can surmise that he found it particularly effective; in 2013 he exhibited Bang, an explosive installation of 886 stools depicted in chaotic disarray, at the Venice Biennale. The ante was upped further in 2014, when Ai displayed 6,000 of these stools in the atrium of the Martin-Gropius-Bau Museum in Berlin, as the centrepiece of his biggest exhibition to date. The significance of this seemingly humble object has made it one of the mainstays of an artistic idiom that spans multiple styles in a variety of media.
Ai Weiwei loves the internet. When he first started blogging in 2006, barely even able to type, he was aghast at the massive immediate impact that he could have on an incredible number of people, both in his own country and internationally, just by sitting down at the computer. He subsequently embarked on three years of scathing social commentary and caustic criticism of the Chinese government before his page was shut down in June 2009. He has since turned to Instagram, to Twitter, and to Facebook, and amassed hundreds of thousands of followers. Having spent so much of his time in recent years under house arrest in his studio complex in Beijing, Ai’s web presence has been something of a beacon of hope, a final tangible link to a world outside China. In this light, we can easily interpret Grapes as a commentary on the indomitable power of the Worldwide Web. Just as Ai shows these emblems of the traditional Chinese homestead woven together, we can imagine individuals all across his censored and Internet-restricted country connecting and uniting online. Together the stools form an entirely new object which, viewed holistically, appears barbed and defensive – knit together with consummate impregnable strength. Its form seems more organic than manufactured, seeming as if it has sprouted naturally and furthermore as if, given time, it might continue to grow into a whole impenetrable sphere. The work takes on a whiff of revolution; these humble household objects have abandoned their passive purpose to unite and form something new; something irrepressible, assertive, and powerful.
It is crucial to note that, in the creation of this sculpture, the stools have not been destroyed – while modified, their original form has not been denied, denigrated, or attacked. In fact, quite the opposite: Ai has not only relied on their inherent shape in his formation of the larger sculpture, but also on the constant assistance of local artisans in its production, using traditional carpentry and joinery techniques. Thus, in Grapes, the artist is not abandoning or attacking the mores and traditions of China, nor is he trying to make something that is not, at its root, inherently Chinese. Instead he is commenting, even symbolising or emblematising, the immutable winds of change blowing through the country of his birth.
For his seditious style, for his reliance on the ‘readymade’ found object, for his refusal to adhere to art world norms, and not least for his use of the bicycle wheel and stool, Marcel Duchamp forms an obvious point of art historical comparison for the work of Ai Weiwei. The French grandfather of conceptual art would have doubtless been impressed by the way that the Chinese artist is, in this work, able to pack such rich interpretative meaning and such delicate social commentary, into such humble and quotidian forms.
It is testament to Ai’s tenacity and indomitable spirit that he is able to handle his political altercations with the Chinese government with the panache, verve, and wit on display in the present work. In the context of his dissident internet activity, we can understand Grapes as a work of quiet confidence in the organic power of the internet. Moreover, in choosing the three-legged stool as his idiom, so rustic and rural in its appearance but so quintessentially Chinese, Ai puts his ultimate faith in his fellow countrymen. In then repurposing the object into an entirely new form, he points strongly and unequivocally to the potency and rapidity of the social, economic, political, and artistic changes facing China as the Twenty-First Century progresses.
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