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Map of China
£800,000 - 1,200,000 ‡
sold for £789,000
Alexander Ochs, Berlin
Christie's, New York, 11 May 2016, lot 441
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
Embodying Ai Weiwei’s characteristic boldness, Map of China assertively confronts and challenges provocative notions of government censorship whilst concurrently commenting upon Chinese cultural history and artistic freedom. Ai skilfully interweaves threads of past and contemporary Chinese art and culture to form a strikingly cohesive yet complex puzzle of Chinese cultural identity.
Unification and fragmentation are simultaneously juxtaposed and intertwined in Map of China as the interlocking elements of salvaged wood resemble a jigsaw-like configuration when viewing the work from above. The outline of the country is projected into a three-dimensional form, the cartography enlivened and catapulted upwards. Tendons of wood spring from the floor like a dense forest, their uniformity forming the shape of the country with all its small enclaves, vast bays and islands. Shined to perfection, the deep brown of the wood reflects light from its polished and ridged surfaces, highlighting the complexity of the carpentry and the material quality of the discarded wood. The skill with which Ai has assembled this sculpture, using a traditional Chinese method of craftsmanship known as mortise-and-tenon joinery, lends Map of China an almost deceptive appearance. Initially appearing to consist of a single piece of unspoiled wood, on closer inspection the separate elements reveal themselves. The monumental scale of the work and the impossibility of viewing its silhouette from one perspective are suggestive of the difficulty of grasping the full complexity and vastness of China.
While fragmentation is evoked directly through the piecing together of elements of salvaged wood, it further alludes to the echoes of China’s fractured history. Sourced from the wood of dismantled Qing Dynasty temples, tieli wood (also termed ironwood), used in Map of China, is known for its durability. During the Cultural Revolution (1966 - 1976), instigated by Mao Zedong’s regime, certain aspects of Chinese history were obliterated from public memory. This dramatic upheaval included the destruction of Qing Dynasty temples in order to preserve Communist ideology and allow for industrial development and urban expansion. By employing tieli wood in the present work, Ai comments upon the removal of certain swathes of history and monumental buildings which embodied cultural significance. The artist collects discarded pieces of China’s fractured cultural memory and rebuilds them. Like Marcel Duchamp’s Readymades Ai uses shards from buildings, once revered, which have become detritus and valuable only for their material worth. The visible scars of breakage in Map of China convey the numerous stratums of collective memory which make up Chinese national identity in its entirety.
Through emphasising the segmented nature of the work Ai also emblematises the ethnic and cultural diversity of his vast country. A rich tapestry of past and present, China is pulled together by the experiences of its many inhabitants. The all-encompassing title, Map of China, allows the spectator to reflect upon this work as both a geographical and historical map. Whilst the expansive nature of the country, combined with the depth of its rich cultural history, is heightened by the work’s monumental size.
The use of tieli wood, combined with the decision to employ traditional ancient Chinese woodworking techniques, imbues Map of China with elements of nostalgia. Ai reflects upon China’s rich history while subtly breathing a new lease of life into the old and forgotten wood, demonstrating the restorative potentiality of his artistic output. Tieli wood is frequently employed by the artist throughout his prolific oeuvre. His Tree series, which commenced in 2009 and appeared in the artist’s acclaimed 2015 exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, is formed from sections of dead trees taken from the mountains of Southern China and sold in the markets of Jingdezhen Jiangxi province. Transporting them to his studio, Ai transformed them back into shapes recognisable as trees. ‘It’s just like trying to imagine what the tree looked like’ (Ai Weiwei, quoted in AI WEIWEI, exh. cat., Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2015, p. 101). This curative process highlights the incredible physical distance the wood travelled before finally becoming a work of art, as well as the cultural and historical journey that it emblemises. In China dead trees are venerated for bridging the gap between the past and present and consequently the Tree series, like Map of China, metaphorically reflects a breadth of Chinese cultural experience.
Bound together by the traditional method of hidden mortise-and-tenon joints, the Tree series and Map of China present the concept of assemblage as a key concern within Ai's oeuvre. Appropriation and joinery invites comparison with the modern Chinese nation, a melting pot of ethnically diverse people coalescing to form ‘One China’, a state-sponsored policy aimed at the self-protection and self-promotion of Chinese sovereignty and territorial integrity. In the present work, the viewer is encouraged to walk around the sculpture, appreciating its mass from a variety of perspectives. Channelling an anarchic resistance in his works, Map of China reminds the viewer to be mindful of dogmatic, two-dimensional approaches to art and life that are embodied by restrictive regimes. Here, the viewer must appreciate the varied aspects of the artwork along with its connotations, just as one must acknowledge the multi-dimensionality of Chinese history.
Through investigating notions of national iconography and the recycling of materials, Ai produces a poignant and controversial socio-political commentary whilst providing a stark insight into the rich history of China, promoting a positive message of unification. Initially unassuming, upon inspection the map form presents itself, strikingly captivating in its grooves and divots. Ai's Map of China is an impressive monument to his home nation and every individual affiliated with China. This monument arrests the viewer’s eye through its sheer scale and the rich colour of the polished tieli wood. This wood seems far removed from the raw materials of the Tree series, gleaming with an almost regal status. Adeptly appropriating traditional symbols and reworking salvaged materials of political and cultural value, Map of China presents a stunning testament to the strength and hope of China’s enduring national legacy.
Map of China
£800,000 - 1,200,000 ‡
sold for £789,000
London Auction 6 October 2017