Friday, July 12, 2013

Ai Weiwei’s rise to global prominence

Considered a troublemaker by the Chinese authorities (who demolished his workshop in 2011 and arrested him on several occasions), for the rest of the world, Ai Weiwei represents China’s new social conscience and a potent symbol of freedom of expression.

He is one of the few contemporary Chinese artists to have gained a legitimate place in global art history. In fact, China’s 'most controversial artist' and the one with the biggest global reputation, as described in its latest report on Contemporary Art Market Report, Artprice points out that he still cannot probably compete with the technical virtuosity of the classically-trained masters of Chinese art. Ai Weiwei was only 40th in this year’s ranking of new auction records, behind 20 of his compatriots.

His ability to seduce Western collectors no doubt stems from the same independence that attracted the disapproval of his own government. His artistic style is also very different to the painting, drawing and bronze sculptures that are so popular with many Chinese collectors. The forging of his artistic temperament began with his rejection of socialist realism and the discovery of the work of Marcel Duchamp in New York in the 1980s. From then on humor, insolence, provocation and the idea that art is not an object in itself but just another constituent component of life became the principal ingredients of his work.

His arrival on the auction market dates back to 2006, just at the time when China’s contemporary art market began to take off. The first work he offered for sale was a Map of China sculpted from wood salvaged from the destroyed temples of the Qing dynasty. He had to wait three more years before gai¬ning access to Hong Kong’s major auction houses and another year before anyone dared to offer his work for sale in Beijing. Today, the highest prices for his work are seen in New York and London, and to a lesser extent in Hong Kong (only 10% of his lots were sold in Beijing and Shanghai).

His latest record is $ 650,000 (close to € 500,000) for an installation entitled Kui Hua Zi (Sunflower Seeds), sold on 9 and 10 May 2012 at Sotheby’s New York. The work consists of thousands of ceramic sunflower seeds, minuscule sculptures made by the inhabitants of Jingdezhen that refer to the people who were said to turn to¬wards Mao as a sunflower turns towards the sun. They were displayed at the Tur¬bine Hall of the Tate Modern, ‘The Unilever Series: Ai Weiwei’ in 2010-11.

The record set by ‘Kui Hua Zi’ (Sunflower Seeds) has just overtaken the price fetched for a huge chandelier made up of thousands of crystals. ‘Chandelier’ (2002) offers an object that signifies prestige, but which is too heavy and on the verge of collap¬sing. This metaphor for power fetched $ 550,000 (€ 394,000) in September 2007 at Sotheby’s New York.

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