A leading figure not only in Chinese contemporary art but in contemporary art internationally, Ai Weiwei is famed for his dissident position in his Chinese homeland and for a brand of socially-engaged art that inserts subversive political critique into sleek Minimalist aesthetics. Map of China is a stellar example from a series of sculpture the artist made from repurposed furniture in the years between 1997 through 2008. Salvaged artifacts, furniture, and architectural remnants from China’s Qing Dynasty (1644-1911)—the last imperial dynasty before the succession of revolutions that led to China’s socialist reign—are reassembled using traditional Chinese techniques in ways that disturb functionality. For Map of China, classically trained craftsmen used ancient methods of joining wood together without nails or glue to assemble the pillars and beams appropriated from Buddhist temples dismantled during the Cultural Revolution into an object that blurs the lines between sculpture and coffee table.
Where Ai follows the craft traditions of his native China, he follows in the conceptual footsteps of Marcel Duchamp. He mines Chinese history and its physical remnants as readymade materials and subject matter. According to the artist, “A historical property has morals and ethics of the society that created it, and it can be revived. What I mean is that we can discover new possibilities from the process of dismantling, transforming and re-creating” (A. Weiwei quoted in M. Kataoka, “According to What?—A Questioning Attitude,” According to What?, Washington D.C. and Tokyo, 2012. p. 18). In this case, the shape of China as a map image and a national symbol, the tieli wood procured from the destroyed temples and the processes used to assemble the material into a new object are all readymade for the artist’s use. Tieli wood, also called Iron Wood because of its hardness, was used for centuries in the construction of Chinese buildings. On the topic of the destroyed temples that provide source material for Ai’s works, the artist has stated, “An old, destroyed temple: you know the old temple was beautiful and beautifully built. We could once all believe and hope in it. But once it has been destroyed, it’s nothing. It becomes another artist’s materials to build something completely contradictory to what it was before. So it’s full of ignorance and also a redefinition or reconsideration (A. Weiwei quoted in H.U. Obrist, “Hans Ulrich Obrist in Conversation with Ai Weiwei,” Ai Weiwei, New York, 2009. p 39).
Exquisitely crafted, the dark wood is assembled into the outline of China with such precision as to render each curve along the nation’s coastline distinct. The islands of Taiwan and Hainan are crafted as individual pieces that stand by themselves off this sculpted coastline. The hatch marks across the surface of the sculpture reveal the points at which the wood was joined, homogenizing nation-state Tibet—a territory, which like Taiwan, has disputed China’s claim to their governance—into the larger mass. The artist has said of the work, “not only in regard to China but rather more generally, it is about the concept of unity and form.” In the catalogue accompanying Ai’s 2012 retrospective organized by the Mori Museum in Tokyo and the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington D.C., curator Mami Kataoka wrote, “In rendering the two-dimensional image of the map of China in three dimensions, he adds ‘depth’ to the depiction, suggestion the accumulation of many layers of history and time in the makeup of the nation’s foundations” (M. Kataoka, Ibid., p. 16).
Map of China occupies a particularly important place in Ai’s oeuvre. An image of the work was used as the cover for a book cataloguing the artist’s lifework, and it was also a featured work in The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s comprehensive survey of contemporary art from China, Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China, in 2013. Map of China finds a companion piece in China Log made in 2005, for which pillars from demolished Buddhist temples were reassembled into a form resembling a log, returning the wood back to an earlier form of itself. A hole in the shape of China’s outline has been carved out of the middle of the log. Where in Map of China the shape of the nation is only visible when viewing the work from above, in China Log China’s shape is only visible when viewing the work from the side.
Other works from the same time reassemble parts from Qing dynasty furniture into dysfunctional twins that resemble their originals. In Grapes, 2007, a number of Qing-era stools were fashioned into a spiral—anticipating future spirals made from bicycles; the stool’s round seats resembling the fruit in the work’s title. Table with Two Legs on a Wall, 2008, presents an antique table, split in half and then re-joined at a 90-degree angle so that the table’s legs rest both on the floor and an adjacent wall. Artifacts from the Qing dynasty are not the only subjects of the artist’s interpretation. Vases from the Han Dynasty, which ruled ancient China from 206-220 AD, have been smashed by the artists or alternatively dipped into a rainbow of colored paints. Through these iconoclastic measures, Ai raises questions that do not belong solely to China, but rather to larger issues of memory, legacy, heritage, artifact and culture as they are encompassed within ideas of nation.