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  • Provenance

    Galerie Urs Meile, Lucerne

  • Catalogue Essay

    Reappropriation is at the heart of Ai Weiwei’s art. Using symbolically rich readymades, he adopts critical perspectives on cultural authority and the politics of value. He is interested in the different kinds of significance that objects accrue - be they cultural, historical, or monetary - and in the ability of the artist to animate and problematise this multiplicity. Bringing the techniques of Dadaism and Pop Art into contact with Chinese history and culture, his work is socially engaged, seeking to understand both artist and nation’s place in a globalised world.

    Some of Ai’s most celebrated and iconic works have made use of ceramic forms. In 1995 he created a triptych entitled Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn: a series of photographs which showed him shattering the antique vessel on the ground. Often synonymous with stability, prosperity, and cultural ascendancy, the Han Dynasty period occupies a significant position in the nation’s consciousness. By destroying an epochal emblem, Ai distanced himself from conventional historical narratives. Elsewhere in his oeuvre, the Han vase appears overlaid with the Coca-Cola logo and dipped in automobile paint. Taking relics of antiquity and marking them with contemporary signifiers, he creates compositional and cultural hybrids, or as he puts it ‘objects that possess two distinctive identities in one.’ (Ai Weiwei in conversation with Michael Frahm, in Ai Weiwei At Blenheim Palace, Woodstock: Blenheim Art Foundation, 2015, p.68). His ceramics are full of tension, allowing different times and places to enter into dialogue.

    The present lot, which belongs to an ongoing series, comprises six Han Dynasty vases daubed in acrylic paint. Dating from 2012, the work borrows from Ai’s earlier pieces. Like Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, these vases are an act of cultural rewriting. In iconoclastic fashion, the artist skews expectations of reverence, imposing his own design atop the ancient pottery, thereby resisting their nostalgic valorisation. There is a pointed carelessness to the work; dripping down the side of the vase, the paint appears to have been applied flippantly. Yet the longer one looks at the pieces the more one notices the traces of artistic ordering and the balance of colour. The lines between art and vandalism are blurred as Ai negotiates the implications of his own practice.

    Like much of Ai's work, Coloured Vases challenges notions of authority and value. The piece is characterised by a fundamental uncertainty as to whether the artist has the right to have made it. There is a sense in which, as the owner of the original vases, Ai is entitled to do with them as he pleases. There is another sense in which he might not be; the viewer is forced to consider whether the historical weight of the originals precludes any right to modify them. There is similar doubt about the worth of the piece. How does Ai’s artistic intervention change the value of the piece, and according to which measure? The lot does not necessarily provide a definitive answer to these questions, but undoubtedly teases out their intricacies, revealing the thorny ground on which the debates are played out.

    These debates about proprietorship are central to Ai’s practice, explored not only in the artist’s compositions, but in the responses which they elicit. One of the more controversial contributions to this argument was offered by Uli Sugg in 2012. Having purchased the artist’s Han Dynasty Urn With Coca-Cola Logo, the collector was photographed by the artist Manuel Salvisberg as he dropped it to the ground. The form the photos took was triptych: a deliberate homage to Ai’s Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn. Here the art world took up Ai’s invitation to explore the allocation and reach of authority.

    The difficulty inherent in Ai’s work, including the present lot, is inextricable from the complex circumstances that have characterised his life. His father Ai Qing was one of China’s foremost modernist poets; labelled a ‘rightist’ by the state, he was exiled to an isolated north-western province where the young Ai spent much of his youth. Later in life, Ai has experienced similar interventions, having spent 81 days in detention. It is unsurprising, then, that his work continually examines authority, asking questions about rights and ownership with unusual assiduity.

    In terms of the artistic vocabulary through which Ai explores these issues, Ai cites several influences. Remembering the time he spent in America, he recalls ‘after I got to New York, I very quickly came in contact with American pop art, also Marcel Duchamp, who has an especially big influence on me.’ (Ai Weiwei in conversation with Michael Frahm, in Ai Weiwei At Blenheim Palace, Woodstock: Blenheim Art Foundation, 2015, p.42) From Duchamp, Ai inherits a kind of radical daring: a willingness to challenge and demystify the notionally unquestionable. In the present lot, the vivid, almost infantile bursts of colour belie a complex investigative process. Through this exuberant overlaying, Ai explores the tension between artistic freedom in the present and the limitations imposed by historical and cultural pressures. Bold in both palette and concept, Coloured Vases navigates difficult terrain, exploring the strain between artist and society as well as history and modernity.


Coloured Vases (in 6 parts)

six Han Dynasty pottery vases (206 BC - 220 AD) with acrylic colour
smallest 34.3 x 36.5 x 36.5 cm (13 1/2 x 14 3/8 x 14 3/8 in.)
largest 42 x 38 x 38 cm (16 1/2 x 14 7/8 x 14 7/8 in.)

Signed, dated and annotated 'Weiwei 2013. 6pc.' on the underside of one vase. This work is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity.

£150,000 - 250,000 

Sold for £266,500

Contact Specialist
Peter Sumner
Head of Contemporary Art, London
[email protected]
+44 207 318 4063

Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London 29 June 2015 7pm