Ai Weiwei - Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Thursday, November 13, 2014 | Phillips
  • Provenance

    Private Collection, Europe, acquired directly from the artist

  • Catalogue Essay

    "It's about communicating. It's about how we use the language which can be part of our history or part of anther history, and how we transform it into today's language." Ai Weiwei, 2009

    A once historical and treasured relic is here branded with the universally recognized red trademark of a commercial titan: Coca Cola. The aged surface of the urn, incised with historical import, is smeared and vandalized by the bright, viscous slogan as it wraps itself around the element. That tattoo of commodity strips the vestige of its previous identity, one of history and culture, and is re-purposed as a symbol of modernity, boldness, and defiance. Some even say disobedience. It is precisely through this rebellion that Ai Weiwei has emerged as one of the most important artists of the last century.

    Ai Weiwei was born in Beijing in 1957 as the son of one of modern China’s most renowned poets. In 1979, the artist became a member of Xingxing, the first avant-garde group in China after the revolution. Ever since, his work has continued to strike controversy: his oeuvre strives to examine the relationships between art, society and the individual whilst remaining faithful to the cultural history, tradition and politics from which they came. His works – photographic, painterly, and sculptural – confront issues of identity through the exploration of craftsmanship and the deconstruction of social and popular influence. These concerns are particularly pertinent to contemporary China and specifically relevant in the notable loss of tradition and historical culture due to the rapidity of modernization and the adoption of modern global economy and life-style. Weiwei questions this dissolution in his work in the examination of mass production, market value and brand globalization—such as that of soft-drink mega company, Coca Cola.

    In Ai Weiwei’s Coca Cola Vase, executed in 2011, the artist presents an antique Chinese pot bedecked with the famed crimson script “Coca Cola” across the surface of the ancient element. Urns of this century are to be treasured for their anthropological importance, revered and left untouched in case of damage. Yet, in this body of work, the artist reallocates their purpose: removing their conventional and historical importance and replacing it under a different system of valuation and appreciation. The artist, in the use of ancient objects, has added a further dimension to the concept of the “readymade”. The method differs from the strategy famously used by artists such as Duchamp, where the object is devoid of cultural or metaphorical gravitas until projected in an art context. In this case, the modified objects are in fact artefacts, existing in cultural significance and importance even without the artist’s creative modifications. The alterations work instead to amalgamate past and contemporary: injecting a historically valuable object with contemporary implication and allusion.

    The works have caused much controversy in the contradicting definitions of this process, as either re-instilling or replacing intrinsic value. The substitution of one value for another occurs in the defacing of the urn with a contemporary slogan; yet the original object still exists beneath the imposed image, underlying it with an established worth and ancient importance. However, this re-evaluation of the work also lends it a contemporary importance, presenting itself as a statement object, pertinent in the modern world. "[Ai Weiwei's] gestural practice of defacing and destroying these ancient objects to transform them into works of contemporary art, provide the illusion of clarity alongside the persistent spectre of ambiguity. What appears at first like the sublimation of an ancient object's financial value and cultural worth into a different yet parallel carrier of updated value and worth also serves as a satire of the ruling regime's approach to its patrimony, and of contemporary China's curious relation to its past, a situation where destruction of historical artefacts happens almost daily." (P. Tinari, Ai Weiwei: Dropping the Urn Ceramic Works, 5000 BCE-2010 CE, exh. cat., Arcadia Unversity Art Gallery, Philadelphia, 2010)

    The artist’s approach to the relic is without doubt amongst the most innovative and pioneering in the art world today. Despite his origins from a country that is currently experiencing one of the most rapid periods of economic and social change to date, the artist manages to draw consistent associations between the past and the present, the individual and the mass culture into which we are born. The Coca Cola series addresses ceramic tradition but also satisfies the contemporary viewer and buyer on both a visceral and theoretical level. Having long attracted international attention for questioning Chinese government policies on democracy, human rights and free speech, the artist is familiar with the concepts of appropriation and exploitation. His deliberate destruction of the natural status of a valuable object in the service of a brand-new artwork refers back to this now established tradition of iconoclasm in and appropriation. The criticism of this process as vandalism is rendered ironic in the international exposure and critical acclaim that this series has obtained. The originally precious objects have acquired a market value far superior to that of their original state. They at once illustrate the contemporary subjectivity of modern rights and challenge the morals of modern policy and innovation.

    In the present lot, the result is not only visually intriguing but also intellectually stimulating. The color contrast between antique ceramic and contemporary paint strikes an alluring comparison. The contrast between the individual, established art forms and the innovation involved in merging the two elements also stimulates curiosity, transforming the piece into a conceptual work of art. Thus a contextually labeled craft object has been elevated to appropriate the qualities of “high art”. Coca Cola Vase can be seen to create a dialogue between utility and artistic production and ultimately between tradition and contemporaneity. Weiwei interprets art as a means to express reality: “two essential functions of modern art: expression and communication. For me, art always has to ask for new possibilities and to try to extend existing boundaries. An artist must maintain his specific sensitivity, react to life and change it.” (Ai Weiwei, “I want to put up a fight”, Spiegel Interview, May 2013)

    By re-interpreting his artistic forbearers, who by majority belong to the Western avant-garde tradition, Ai Weiwei has brought Chinese art to prominence. Coca Cola Vase as an art object draws many associations with the concept made renowned by Andy Warhol: that of art as pop. Parodying yet progressing Warhol’s gesture, Weiwei utilises the logo of Coke Cola and the commodity of mass production it evokes to add both tangible and psychological value to his work. When asked about the effect of his process on the works the artist replies: “Well, it’s worth more now.” (M. Howard, “Branded by Art,” Tufts Journal, March 2008). Through his re-imagining of historical relic into contemporary icon, Weiwei manages to project his concerns regarding Chinese national identity on to an international stage. By merging the work of his American predecessors with a singularly personal interpretation, Weiwei successfully amalgamates unique, traditional heritage and modern universality.


Coca Cola Vase

Neolithic vase, paint
12 5/8 x 10 3/4 x 10 3/4 in. (32.1 x 27.3 x 27.3 cm)
Signed and dated "Ai Weiwei 2011" on the underside. This work is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity signed by the artist.

$400,000 - 600,000 

Sold for $665,000

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Amanda Stoffel
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New York
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Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 13 November 2014 7pm