Ai Weiwei’s internationally acclaimed Fairytale was conceived and performed for the twelfth edition of Documenta held in Kassel, Germany, in 2007. For this work of ‘social sculpture,’ Ai Weiwei choreographed the mass temporary migration of 1,001 Chinese nationals to Kassel, accompanied by 1,001 Qing dynasty chairs – six of which are offered in the present lot. The movement of people and objects from China to Germany was a symbolic act that wove together issues of individual expression, geo-cultural dynamics and the motions of import-export economies. The ‘fairytale’ of the work’s title alludes to both the individual imaginative possibilities of people travelling to far-away lands, and the historical site of Kassel, the birthplace of the infamous German fairy-storytellers, the Brothers Grimm. Ai Weiwei stated ‘the most important aspect of Fairytale is each participant’s personal experience identity, and imagination – these are irreplaceable’ (A. Weiwei, quoted in ‘Conversation between Ai Weiwei and Fu Xiao-Dong Regarding the Work Fairytale,’ in L. Bovier and S. Schnetz (eds.), Ai Weiwei. Fairytale: A Reader, Zurich 2012, p. 20). Whilst the 1,001 participants and the artist were free to roam Documenta, the antique chairs were installed in various formations at every venue of the exhibition. The spectral presence of these objects alluded to the movements of the participants in Kassel. As such, the chairs remain a tangible aspect of this largely immaterial artwork that detonated an international network of social, cultural and political relations.
Since 2007 many of the chairs have been re-installed in various contexts, incuding the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Leeds, in 2014. Rich in narrative properties, they continue to symbolise the passage of individuals physically and conceptually between East and West. The serial repetition of objects, is a feature of other sculptural projects by the artist, such as the 96 identical vases of Ghost Gu Coming Down the Mountain (2005) and the thousands of porcelain sunflower seeds installed in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, London (Sunflower Seeds, 2010). Ai Weiwei explains, ‘I draw inspiration from my recognition of China’s reality. From my family’s situation to my own condition today, personal experiences are my main sources of inspiration’ (A. Weiwei, quoted in ‘Ai Weiwei interviewed by Daniel Birnbaum,’ in L. Bovier and S. Schnetz (eds.), Ai Weiwei. Fairytale: A Reader, Zurich 2012, p. 109). The political relevance and cultural intricacy of the Fairytale project is emphasised by the severe travel restrictions placed upon Weiwei by the Chinese government after his 81-day detainment by the authorities in 2011. During this time, many of the chairs became the site of activist ‘sit-ins’, testifying to the work’s continued political relevance.