One of the leading figures within the world of contemporary art, Ai Weiwei is famed for his brand of social sculpture that inserts subversive political critique into repurposed cultural artifacts. It was fitting then that Ai conducted one of his most ambitious projects to date at Kassel, the site of the most important art exhibition in the world, Documenta. For the 7th iteration of Documenta in 1982, German artist Joseph Beuys, who conceptualized social sculpture as an idea that art could be anything and anyone could be an artist, planted 7,000 oak trees that still grow today as an art installation and recuperative measure after the devastation wrought by World War II. Building on this legacy, for Documenta 12 in 2007 Ai installed 1,001 Ming and Qing dynasty chairs, one each for the 1,001 Chinese citizens the artist invited to live in Kassel for the duration of the exhibition. By titling his work Fairytale - 1001 Chairs, Ai connects to another cultural aspect of the city of Kassel–it is the historic home of the Brothers Grimm, who famously recalled fables, folklore and fairy tales. As is the trope of fairy tales, common household items are often imbued with magical properties that set off the narrative possibilities of the story. Such is the case with Fairytale - 1001 Chairs, whose appearance in Kassel en masse throughout the street signaled the arrival of a different kind of culture object–functional, ancient, Eastern–amongst the international survey of contemporary art. Touching upon different issues related to the movement of people across borders, including displacement, tourism and immigration, Ai’s Fairytale - 1001 Chairs can today be seen as a prescient and poignant forewarning of the refugee crisis in Europe. The antique chair would go on to become a symbol of the artist himself, as he was placed under house arrest by the Chinese government in early 2011 and would sometimes send a chair as his proxy to events he could not attended.
Where Ai often follows the craft traditions of his native China, he also 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). Throughout his career Ai has used salvaged artifacts, furniture, and architectural remnants appropriated from Qing dynasty (1644-1911) Buddhist temples dismantled during China’s Cultural Revolution, often reassemble these wooden parts into new, albeit dysfunctional, configurations. Vases from the Han dynasty that ruled ancient China from 206-220 AD have been smashed by the artists or alternatively dipped into a rainbow of colored paints. Like the chairs, the vases Ai chooses are priceless antiques that have lost their fashionable appeal in a modern and industrialized China. Adrian Locke, curator of Ai’s exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art in London, speculates the Ai’s intervention is one that challenges our notions of value, cultural, monetary and otherwise: “Whereas that might have been a very treasured part of someone’s home in the past, people are now replacing such pieces with modern, mass-produced things. I think Weiwei feels a sense of loss in that, and like the ceramics, he poses questions. If we change them and recreate them, do we give them more value, less value, more interest?” (A. Locke, quoted by L. Cohen, “Ai Weiwei: A Beginner’s Guide,” The Royal Academy of Arts, London, https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/article/ai-weiwei-beginners-guide [Accessed Oct. 4. 2016]). Equally rare as the Han vases are freshwater pearls in his 2006 work Bowls of Pearls. Presented in two oversized porcelain bowls, the pearls appear at first glance to be grains of rice, another subtle way that Ai plays with value, commodity and accumulation.