Ai Weiwei - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Afternoon Session New York Tuesday, May 16, 2023 | Phillips

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  • A paradox of creation and destruction, Ai Weiwei’s Colored Vases, 2014, tackle several of the most essential subjects of the conceptual artist’s oeuvre. Consisting of six Neolithic and Han dynasty vases the artist dipped in industrial paint, the present work engages the historic objects in an act that is both rebellious and deeply reverent of Chinese artistic history. No longer simply objects of a historic past, the six vases are proven to be unstable, changeable vessels that take on a palimpsest of meaning.


    Weiwei has garnered international acclaim as an artist who rebels against authority and challenges history. Despite this reputation, Weiwei does not think of his work with historic artifacts as destructive. Rather, he puts plainly, “it’s just an attitude.”i Elaborating on his artistic process, Weiwei has stated: “I think I change the form; it’s just a different way to interpret the form… I’m still questioning those very essential aesthetic judgements, where those judgements come from, and in that sense it has followed the tradition of making that pot.”ii


     “I wouldn’t call it being destroyed, it just has another life, you know, it’s a different way of looking at it.”
    —Ai Weiwei


    Ai Weiwei’s engagement with ancient vases began in 1994 when he boldly painted a 2000-year-old Han Dynasty urn with the Coca Cola logo. As claimed by Philip Tinari, “This was his initial gesture toward an entire language built on the alternating destruction and reconstruction of the remainders of past glories, which he stitched into works as textural as they are conceptual.”iii A year later, the artist created a now-iconic series of photographs documenting his destruction of a vase of similar pedigree. The black and white photos of the artist nonchalantly dropping the ceramic are amongst the most recognizable imagery in contemporary Chinese art.


    Colored Vases sparks a range of open-ended questions from, "Is something inherently valuable because of its age?" to "Why does context change value?" The present work utilizes ceramics that are considered common and, in fact, frequently sold in flea markets at low prices. In effect, objects that were anonymous have now been reclaimed by the artist. Astutely, Uta Rahman-Steinert notes, “In modern China as during ancient times, the addition of a signature serves both as a sign of possession and as an expression of respect and enhanced value.”iv Signed boldly on the underside of the green and yellow vase, Weiwei asserts his hand in the ongoing life of these storied vases.


    i Ai Weiwei, quoted in Tim Marlow, John Tancock, Daniel Rosbottom and Adrian Locke, eds., Ai Weiwei, London, 2015, p. 20

    ii ibid.

    iii Philip Tinari, “A Kind of True Living: The Art of Ai Weiwei,” Artforum, Summer 2007, online

    iv Uta Rahman-Steinert in Ai Weiwei: Evidence, exh. cat.,  Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, 2014, p. 46

    • Provenance

      Lisson Gallery, New York
      Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2016


Colored Vases

signed and dated "Weiwei 2014 six pieces [in Chinese]" on the underside of the green and yellow vase
industrial paint on Neolithic and Han dynasty vases, in 6 parts
smallest 8 5/8 x 10 1/4 x 10 1/4 in. (21.9 x 26 x 26 cm)
largest 17 1/4 x 15 1/2 x 13 1/2 in. (43.8 x 39.4 x 34.3 cm)
installation dimensions variable

Executed in 2014.

Full Cataloguing

$200,000 - 300,000 

Contact Specialist

Patrizia Koenig
Specialist, Head of Sale, Afternoon Session
+1 212 940 1279

20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Afternoon Session

New York Auction 16 May 2023