"These stools are commonly used household furniture with hundreds of years of history in China. This symbol is present in every household. I wanted to find how to take this symbol and reassemble it completely, but using the original logic so that it remains true to its original form." - Ai Weiwei
The Dissident Carpenter
Instantly arresting in aesthetic and gripping in appropriation, Grapes embodies the brazen spirit that characterises Ai Weiwei’s dissident oeuvre. In the work, twenty-five stools dating back to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) are woven together with legs pointed out so as to form a sort of high-sided semi-spherical bowl – a shape akin to a cluster of grapes. In its subversion of found objects that nods to Marcel Duchamp’s legacy, and by choosing the motif of grapes, a cherished subject of the Western still-life genre, Ai subverts two historical traditions in one elegant gesture. Ai has previously 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. In his reconstructed sculpture, Ai inherits the integrity of the exquisite carpentry whilst overturning the practical function of the stools, transforming the furniture pieces into an inoperative yet strangely graceful mutation. Charged with conceptual wit, Grapes hails from one of the most symbolic series of the artist’s career and is highly representative, having been prominently featured in many of the artist’s large-scale solo exhibitions.
Grapes is at once immensely personal and internationally significant, epitomizing Ai Weiwei’s acclaimed oeuvre that defies boundaries of geography and time. The artist first embarked on a body of work involving Qing furniture in 1997; previously, he had already done extensive work involving Han Dynasty and Neolithic urns. In the early 2000s he created his celebrated bicycle works that use found objects as modular building units within larger and more complex sculptures. Later on 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 over 6,000 stools from the Ming and Qing dynasties in the atrium of the Martin-Gropius-Bau Museum in Berlin. The immense scale of the work could only be appreciated from the museum’s second-floor balconies; from that height, each stool became a tiny pixel within a vast tapestry, like soldiers in an army. The stunning spectacle teased out multiple connotations alluding to relationships between history and contemporaneity, part and whole, identity and nationality, and the significance of humble everyday objects. Such timeless and universal themes, expressed and evoked through a wholly Chinese motif and aesthetic, are testament to Ai Weiwei’s sophisticated artistic vision that seamlessly stretches from the local to the global.
Ai’s devoted appreciation and aesthetic preoccupation with daily materials are particularly worth highlighting. In a lot of his works, what shines through most powerfully is not his own authority as the creator but the physical nature of the particular materials he employs, be it wood, stone, or old stools. The artist recalls: “When I was a child, we had to pile up wood for the winter. Every house had a woodpile by the front door. Our woodpile was very tight and orderly, without any gaps. The people in the neighbourhood used to comment on it. During the Cultural Revolution, every school had a set of parallel bars and a basketball hoop in the schoolyard. We all competed to see what we could do with this piece of equipment that was basically two metal bars” (the artist cited in Ai Weiwei: According to What?, Mori Art Museum, 2013, p. 16). As Mami Kataoka observes, such a remark “displays Ai’s aesthetic preoccupation with daily activities and the process of giving them artistic form, as well as his focus on eliciting the creative value in ordinary objects” (Ibid.). With its appropriation and reverential transformation of Chinese furniture, the present lot hails from a series that is perhaps most representative of the artist’s profound interest in structure and craftsmanship.
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. 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 and assertive.
At the same time, Grapes constitutes a subtle yet powerful statement on the value of each and every individual life. The series was created after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake – a pivotal incident within Ai Weiwei’s career which outraged the artist and formed an important motivation for his art-making. More than 5,000 children lost their lives when shoddily constructed schoolhouses collapsed, while most of the surrounding buildings remained standing. The series of works which Ai created in response to the injustice reveal a sense of duty to commemorate the lost souls and to defend the fundamental value of human life, however ordinary, average or weak. In choosing the three-legged stool as his motif, so rustic and rural in its appearance but so quintessentially and humbly Chinese, Ai puts faith and strength in his fellow countrymen and points unequivocally towards the potent agency inherent in each unique human being. Packed with rich interpretative meaning and delicate social commentary, Grapes evidences the indomitable spirit and unparalleled artistic genius of one of the greatest living contemporary artists in the world.