"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. A conflict forms between the changes that transpire its own logic and its past functions and uses. This conflict is a forcible mispositioning and repositioning of the blind spot and the angle of our own recognition of things."1
This is the central point of the interpretation Ai Weiwei provided last year for his most renowned piece of work: A Map of China (Lot 1074). A Map of China was made from the tielimu (ironwood) of a demolished Qing Dynasty temple. It was constructed from different pieces of wood using the mortise-and-tenon joinery technique, and became a full map of China, featuring Mainland China, Taiwan, and Hainan Island. It consists of old objects that have their own histories, and has evolved into an art work with the form of a readymade item. The great conflict that Ai Weiwei speaks of stems from the change of form. This type of change is a metaphor for the existence of traditional Chinese culture within a context of rapid economic development, and it is also ironic. The viewer can thus observe how closely Ai Weiwei's creative ideas have been integrated in A Map of China, and appreciate how it has become his most representative piece of work.
A Map of China contains traces of Dadaism, and at the same time it tries to explore a new visual language within a Chinese context. It has aroused nostalgia for traditional processes, and has brought a new lease of life to assemblage sculpture. This seems to correspond with the modernisation of China. In this manner Ai Weiwei rekindles the viewer's memories of Chinese traditions. "We are moving too fast, but memories are something that we can still grasp. Memories also move around at high speeds, so they are the easiest things to which we can commit". More importantly, his work depicts traditional culture in a new light, and re-examines the significance of traditional arts and crafts to the people of China. And of even greater importance, A Map of China raises profound questions about the relationship between economic development and the destruction of traditional culture. The prototype of A Map of China was created in 2004. It has been the artist's most important piece of work, and has had the most influence on his following works, including his huge installation pieces: Fragments (2005), Through (2007-2008) and Temple (2007). Fragments was constructed from the ironwood fragments of a demolished temple. From an aerial perspective it takes the shape of China. Through took a whole year to construct from the discarded wooden beams and pillars of a temple, and antique furniture, before becoming a fully realised cohesive installation. When the viewer enters the installation, there is a feeling of being encaged, and for Chinese people this is undoubtedly a metaphor for reality.
The works of Ai Weiwei are related to themes of China. These themes appeared in his work once he returned to China in 1993. He spent twelve years away from his motherland, but on his return felt disappointment at the changes he had witnessed. It felt as if his connection had been severed in the eighties, and this amplified his feelings of repression. Therefore, his questions seem like a counter-current to China's economic and social development. These questions began to manifest in his work, making him a highly influential artist. As "China" was at the core of all of his works, his creations naturally entered a completely new phase. For his creative approaches, he used misappropriation which he had learned from his time in New York, readymade objects, assemblage, and other modern approaches. Yet, with regards to the element of time, many of the materials he uses to create works are in fact antique Chinese objects. In one of his earlier works, he emblazoned the Coca-Cola trademark onto a Han Dynasty urn: Coca-Cola Vase (1994) and broke a Han Dynasty urn for his photographical work: Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995), and in 1997 Ai Weiwei started a series of works made from antique furniture, which has become one of his best known creations. It is also worth mentioning that the works of this series have no serial numbers, as they were all created from unique antique furniture or wood, making each work a completely unique piece. A Map of China can be considered the greatest achievement of the furniture series, and has gone on to influence a later series of large scale installations.
Ai Weiwei isn't just the most controversial artist of China today, he is also an architect, a curator, a blogger. He has worked on over fifty architectural works in China, and this includes collaborating with the Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron to create the Bird's Nest. Ai Weiwei had spent twelve years in the United States, and had become influenced by the work of masters of modern western art such as Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, and began using the creative devices of subversion, misappropriation, readymade objects, juxtaposition, and irony. His work has since been made to correspond with the current social and political realities of China; it raises powerful questions, and hopes to bring about change. From this perspective it can be said that Ai Weiwei has been a mirror for China over these past few decades of rapid change. Since returning to China, Ai Weiwei has always been marginalised, and has even been highly criticised. However, he alone has been invited to hold numerous exhibitions at various international art galleries, including the Tate Modern of London, where he held a personal exhibition of his Sunflower Seeds in the large Turbine Hall. He returned to America for his Ai Weiwei: According to What? exhibition. He also exhibited his early work at the Documenta art show of Kassel, Germany. In the exhibition essay of According to What? Mami Kataoka, Chief Curator of the Mori Art Museum, concluded that: "He hopes that we do not watch China from a distance, through a lens of 'otherness', but rather to observe it from the same perspective as the Chinese people themselves. He hopes to find universal values that will link China and the rest of the world at a basic level".2
Ai Weiwei was a member of an avant garde art group called "Stars", which was founded after the Cultural Revolution. During this period he attended the Beijing Film Academy with a group of other young artists of the time. In the years of 1979 and 1980 he organised the Stars Exhibition two times. The early paintings of Ai Weiwei featured techniques similar to those of the western Impressionists, with traces of Monet's influence, and were quite far removed from the Socialist Realism art of the official system. As with the other "Stars" artists in their first exhibition, he used the slogan: "Understand the world with our own eyes, and connect with the world with our own brushes and sculpting tools". At that time, the beliefs of Ai Weiwei lead him to pursue the expression of individual freedom. In fact, this can traced back from his personal experiences of the Cultural Revolution. His father was the famous Chinese poet, Ai Qing. He was an important member of the League of Left Wing Writers, but was labelled a rightist during the Cultural Revolution. In 1967 Ai Weiwei and his entire family were sent off to Xingjiang. Besides being forbidden to continue his work as a writer, Ai's father was also made to clean toilets for many years. It was this event that became the critical point which drove Ai Weiwei to pursuit personal independence and freedom.
Both times the Stars Exhibition received a lot of feedback, but none of it was officially recognised. As one of the organisers, Ai Weiwei felt the need to leave China, he said: "A place with no personal space, is a personal space for the individual psyche". He felt suffocated by the social climate of China, and so moved to the United States in 1981. In the following year he enrolled in Parsons School of Design, New York. This is how he was introduced to his teacher Sean Scully. He began to learn about Dadaism, Surrealism, and many western artists such as Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, and Marcel Duchamp. Although he left the college later on, it made a huge impact upon his later work. Up until his return to China in 1993, the work he created during his twelve years in the United States was primarily influenced by Dadaism and Pop Art. This includes Hanging Man (1985), Safe Sex (1986), One Man Shoe (1987), and Violin (1987). These creations were made from readymade objects, and possessed a simple but direct energy. Interestingly, the reassembled and changed objects he created in New York did not seem related to any Chinese themes. It seems apparent that Ai Weiwei did not plan to use his own nationality as a means to establish himself in New York.
Ai Weiwei draws from his own traditional culture, but he does not obsess about the past. On the contrary, he has changed the function and form of culture and art. As the renowned curator of Chinese art, Karen Smith, 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". 3 In fact, the creations of Ai Weiwei that followed birthed further waves that rippled through society. The favourite word of Ai Weiwei is "act". Smith observes that the "power of change" is the core element of his work. 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 opportunity arises". 4
1 Liu Yongren in dialogue with Ai Weiwei: Ai Weiwei Absent, Taipei Fine Arts Museum, 2014, p. 7
2 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
3 Karen Smith, Giant Provocateur, Ai Weiwei, Phaidon, 2009, p.62
4 Ai Weiwei/ Karen Smith, Where Architect Fear to Tread, op. cit., p.58
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