In 1997, Ai Weiwei began making antique furniture readymades with Dadaist inflections. These works became the most symbolic series of his creative career. Works from this series, of which Grapes (Lot 1050) is highly representative, have been prominently featured in many of the artist’s large-scale solo exhibitions.
"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."
This quotation from Ai regarding his own work is an illuminating footnote to Grapes. The artwork is made up of thirty five wooden stools from the Qing Dynasty. Linked together with mortise and tenon joints and opening outward from the middle, they resemble the shape of a grape. 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’s also ironic.
Grapes 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. The artist further developed these ideas in later, larger-scale projects, 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.
Ai Weiwei has always taken his inspiration from China. In 2011, his Circle of Zodiac Heads/Circle of Animals: Bronze debuted in New York at the historic Pulitzer Fountain, and soon became his most iconic works. The series recreates the 12 traditional Chinese zodiac sculptures that adorned the Yuanming Yuan imperial fountain-clock in Beijing and were subsequently looted during the Opium wars. Out of the 7 recovered Zodiac Heads, 5 have been repatriated to China. Whenever these Zodiac Heads appear in auction, they are being seen as the bitter scars left by Western Imperialism. Even though they were in fact made in Italy, they are now the priority of Chinese nationalists. The Zodiac Heads must return to China, as a symbol of the strength and confidence of its people. Ai Weiwei questions this idea of nationalism and repatriation through Circle of Zodiac Heads/Circle of Animals: Bronze, by reinterpreting and recreating the animal heads. They have been exhibited in international public collections across the world. Subsequent venues have included: Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal (May - September 2012); Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (February - July 2012); The Crow Collection of Asian Art, Dallas, Texas (September 2013 - March 2014); Garage Center for Contemporary Art, Moscow (February - March 2014); Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin (April - July 2014); Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire (October 2014 - April 2015); Palm Springs Museum of Art (December 2014 - May 2015); Portland Art Museum (May - September 2015); and the Arken Museum of Modern Art, Skovvej, Denmark , where an edition of the piece remains on long-term loan from 2013-2019.
The current lot, Circle of Zodiac Heads/Circle of Animals: Monkey (Lot 1049) is a smaller edition of this series, and has been painted in an attractive gold, which will sure draw the attention of many collectors. It also criticizes the mass consumption of nationalism. This year is the Year of Monkey, although the original Monkey head is now lost, the image created by the artist remains, and it opens to the viewer’s interpretations and imagination.
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 work 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.
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".2 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".3
1 Kataoka Mami, 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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