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  • Provenance

    Galerie Urs Meile, Beijing

  • Catalogue Essay

    Furniture recurs in Ai Weiwei’s work. Using tables and chairs from Ming and Qing Dynasty China, he has created some of his most conceptually rich and formally inventive sculptures. Refashioning antique pieces, he comments on Chinese history, sharply examining the relationship between past and present moments. Alongside the Han Dynasty urns, these works are among his most iconic: distinctive explorations of artistry, memory, and nationhood.

    Since its inception, Ai’s use of furniture has allowed for a complex interaction between irreverence and veneration. In 1997, he created Slanted Table; a wooden piece dating from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the artist shortened its legs so that the surface runs at a diagonal. In part this is an act of desecration; without a flat plane, the object ceases to be functional. Yet, as an antique, its functionality was only notional. From this perspective, Ai’s intervention allows it to become a purely aesthetic concern. It is this illuminating interplay between function, aesthetics and meaning that enlivens the artist’s work with furniture, and indeed the present lot.

    Ai’s interest in chairs also reaches back to 1997. Dating from this year, Stool sees two of the titular seats conjoined. As his interest in the form has grown, so too has the scale of his engagement with it. At the 2013 Venice Biennale, he created Bang, an installation comprising 886 stools in explosive disarray. Piled atop each other and suspended in mid air, they formed a chaotic spectacle. In 2014, Ai upped the ante even further; for an exhibition at Berlin’s Martin-Gropius-Bau, he filled the atrium with a staggering 6,000 stools. In its dizzying assemblage of smaller parts, the piece recalled the artist’s famed Sunflower Seeds installation in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall.

    Discussing the present lot, Ai relates that ‘these stools are commonly used household furniture with hundreds of years of history in China. This symbol is present in every household. I wanted to find how to take this symbol and reassemble it completely, but using the original logic so that it remains true to its original form. This is something that I’ve been interested in trying for a long time, including the earlier furniture series.’ (Ai Weiwei in conversation with Michael Frahm,' Ai Weiwei at Blenheim Palace, Woodstock: Blenheim Art Foundation, 2015). The seventeen stools of which Grapes is comprised become components of a larger design. Their original structure is not destroyed, but rather repurposed in service of another larger and altogether less functional structure.

    Traditionally these stools were built without the use of screws or bolts. Ai’s piece shares in this practice; in creating it, he too adopted a technique of careful joinery. Craft is an integral facet of the work; even as he innovates, the artist draws upon a history of materials and a culture of construction. As he puts it, ‘it’s an exploration and display of tradition, which adheres to high aesthetic and moral values in a classic sense but at the same time subverts the meaning through manipulating that same language.’ (Ai Weiwei in conversation with Michael Frahm, Ai Weiwei at Blenheim Palace, Woodstock: Blenheim Art Foundation, 2015, p.90) The sculpture is historically ambivalent, at once returning to and reimagining the remains of the past. Using a time-honoured technique, Ai arrives at a work that is distinctly modern.

    The title of the work similarly suggests a process of transformation. Alluding to the shape of the piece, it also implies a transition from inert to organic matter, and from domestic to natural space. It permits a metaphoric reading in which the artist is cast a revitalising presence, and in which optimism permeates the sculpture. As he nods to the natural world, Ai also gestures in the direction of the art world. Marcel Duchamp, an artist whose likeness Ai once rendered using a coat hanger, created his first readymade piece using a stool and a bicycle wheel. In using the stool, and indeed the bicycle elsewhere in his oeuvre, one suspects that Ai is offering a wry acknowledgement of this pivotal moment in art history.

    Ai Weiwei is interested in the way in which we understand and respond to the past. His decade-spanning work with furniture is testament to this fascination. In returning so ardently and purposively to subject and material, Ai reclaims and reconfigures a past which is both personal and national. In his hands, the stool – an object that gathers meaning as it is passed from one generation to the next – is transformed. It remains recognisable, but is recalibrated as part of a new composition. It is no longer an object of utility nor is it an antique. Instead, it assumes a new aesthetic quality. The present lot is a distinctly contemporary piece, but remains rooted in a national past. Making use of the traditional method of joinery, Ai ties the act of artistic creation to a historic practice. Full of complexity, the piece is beguilingly multivalent, beautifully crafted and conceptually astute.



17 wooden Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) stools
166.5 x 177.5 x 154 cm (65 1/2 x 69 7/8 x 60 5/8 in.)
Signed and dated 'Ai Wei 2007' on the underside.

£250,000 - 350,000 

Sold for £422,500

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

Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London 29 June 2015 7pm