Tieli wood from destroyed Qing dynasty temples
Executed in 2004.
This work is unique.
Following a ten-year sojourn in Philadelphia and New York, Ai Weiwei returned to Beijing in 1993, just as a newly global art world was beginning to turn its gaze toward China. In his first few years back in his hometown, Ai was instrumental in introducing the younger, post-1989 generation of artists to currents then in vogue outside of China. He was the catalyzing figure behind the controversial "East Village" community of performance artists, whose name mirrors Ai's former New York neighborhood, and whose representative work, Zhang Huan's Twelve Square Meters (Lot 26), has been taken as a reference to the decade spent by Ai's father, a major poet championed at various moments by the Chinese Communist Party and UNESCO, cleaning toilets in exile on the country's northwestern, Turkic fringe. In 1994, Ai edited "Black Cover Book," an underground publication that articulated the nascent artistic sensibility of the moment, and galvanized an indigenous avant-garde caught between the heady ecstasy of the late 1980s and the institutionalized comforts of the present. In 2000, he co-curated Fuck Off, an exhibition timed to coincide with the first avowedly contemporary edition of the Shanghai Biennale and committed to a stance of "non-cooperation" with the rote imitation of international contemporary art practices then threatening to quash that same trendsetting group.
The early work of Ai抯 New York period tells a nuanced story first of a conceptualist looking for a meaningful dialogue with the Western giants, particularly Duchamp and Beuys. Hanging Man (Fig. 1; 1985) turns the readymade back on the founder of the readymade, sketching Duchamp himself in profile from a single wire hanger. Safe Sex (Fig. 2; 1986) similarly mimicked Beuys抯 clothing works, but added a wilted condom, riffing on the linguistic convergence between two senses of the English word raincoat.
Ai flourished upon his return to China, first in his organizational and intellectual role as conduit between Beijing and New York, then as a highly skilled and deeply suspicious artist encountering a compelling and confusing set of social and historical realities in the Beijing of the fin-de-si鑓le. Like the works of Ai抯 New York decade, the works of this Beijing decade can be grouped together, a claim made convincingly in a catalogue published to mark that anniversary. (Ai Weiwei: Works: Beijing 1993-2003, TimeZone 8, Beijing, 2003) The works of this period share a common concern with the material relics of China抯 past, incorporating them in bits and pieces into compositions that mock the very possibility of reconciling 搕radition?with 搈odernity.?
Map of China (2004; Lot 135) is rightly taken as the culmination of this extremely productive and influential decade of artistic output. In the present work, Tieli wood of the finest quality culled from destroyed Qing dynasty temples has been assembled using techniques of artisanal Chinese nail-less carpentry into the recognizable form of a map of the People抯 Republic as defined by the Beijing government. The beams, intricately and geometrically connected at the inside, end in the stark, jagged contours of the state's geopolitically articulated boundaries. Two freestanding segments, representing Hainan Island and the "rebel province" of Taiwan fill out the composition.
The work literally puts into relief the constructed and arbitrary nature of national boundaries, particularly those of a nation-state that has defined its geography according to the boundaries of the Qing (1644-1911) high tide, which in addition to laying claim to territory never before considered part of China proper (Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan), produced the temples from which the work is physically constructed. Ai, who spent his childhood in exile on the far northwestern borderlands of the empire/state, is particularly sensitive to the delicate tensions that hold his piece and the country together.
Map of China, in which destroyed property is reassembled into art by re-appropriated traditional technique, follows on a long period of destruction as art. In Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995), the artist did just that, documenting the process with a photographic triptych showing himself with urn raised, the urn falling, and urn shattered. At roughly the same time, he completed a series in which rough industrial paints of gaudy hues were applied to still more Han dynasty urns, at once ruining them and turning them into works of art. In perhaps his best-known series, exquisite specimens of Ming and Qing furniture are cut up and reassembled into tilting or intersecting configurations that make no practical sense. (Fig. 3; 1997) A stoic fascination with destruction and reconstruction pervades Ai抯 work, and resonates with the broader Chinese milieu at the turn of the twenty-first century, as old spaces, structures, objects and patterns are cleared to make room for new ones.
Like its exact contemporary Forever (Fig. 4; 2003) in which dozens of Forever brand bicycles are twisted and reassembled into an endless loop, Map of China not only plays on the notion of the (Chinese) ready-made, but articulates the artist抯 then-nascent architectural sensibility, in which structures must cohere, albeit ironically. In the few years since creating Map of China, Ai抯 attention has shifted from large-scale sculptural works to expansive architectural undertakings. Out of an atelier attached to his home, itself regarded as a masterpiece of contemporary design, he runs an architectural firm working on everything from provincial factories to the 2008 Olympic Stadium.
Map of China, like Forever, shows not only how found objects梬hether they date to the late Qing or the early millennium梒an be commandeered for art抯 sake, but how they can be exquisitely manipulated into abstracted yet sardonic statements about the Chinese scene. As Ai抯 involvements and ambitions, like those of the nation depicted in the present work, continue to grow, Map of China will remain an important statement of the artist抯 nuanced relationship to his nation.