AI Weiwei; Table with two legs
See also Acc. no. 2006.013a-aa 'Additional information'.
A need to call attention to what Ai Weiwei has referred to as the 'existing nature of destruction in society and life'(1) can be detected in Pillar through round table (Acc. 2006.238a-c), Table with two legs (Acc. 2006.014) and Table with two legs on the wall (Acc. 2006.015). The speed of transformation in contemporary China's cities is phenomenal. Urban skylines are rapidly changing, crowded with cranes and punctured by futuristic building profiles in a construction boom bolstered by the country's surging economy. Ai Weiwei himself is involved in this massive building program. As a freelance architect he has been engaged in a number of major construction projects, most notably his collaboration with Herzog de Meuron to design the spectacular 'Birds Nest' National Stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, an event that the artist has since publicly criticised. He laments, however, the disappearance of countless beautiful old buildings as whole neighbourhoods vanish under the wrecker's ball. Disappearing, too, are the time-honoured skills employed in Chinese architectural construction. In Chinese tradition there was no demarcation between carpentry and joinery - the same artisans could construct a building and shape its furnishings. In works such as Pillar through round table Ai Weiwei quite literally reunites these skills, driving a beam salvaged from a demolished Qing dynasty temple, a victim of China's relentless drive toward urban modernisation, through a small round table artfully contrived from two half tables.
These three works are part of Ai's ongoing furniture series that began in 1997, in which he disassembles then reconstructs furniture of the Ming and Qing dynasties to create new unconventional forms. Traditionally, furniture was not a focus of connoisseurship for China's literati in the same way as calligraphy, painting, ceramics or bronzes, although clearly items of furniture were important elements within domestic environments that could demonstrate the refined tastes and wealth of their owners. Today, however, furniture of the Ming and early Qing dynasties is highly valued for its aesthetic functionalism. Characterised by an agreeable blend of graceful lines and elegant proportions - qualities that are entirely but pleasingly transformed in Ai Weiwei's hands - Chinese furniture of the period is considered to have reached an apogee of perfection. Since the 1980s, the market for Ming and early Qing furniture has grown exponentially and the prices that the best examples can now command have risen accordingly. Ming and early Qing furniture is rightly admired, not only for the overall effect of its appealing simplicity and quiet dignity, but also for the intricacy and ingeniousness of its joinery. Chinese artisans invented a seemingly infinite variety of complex mortice and tenon joints which were so skilfully constructed that objects were made without the need for nails, traditional techniques that Ai Weiwei continues to employ in his own furniture reconstructions.
In addition to the exceptional craftsmanship involved, traditional Chinese joinery is admired for its contribution to the utility of an object. Joinery types were deployed not only with reference to their aesthetic qualities but also for their appropriateness to the function of an object, ensuring its structural soundness, stability and durability. Indeed, comfort and utility are still important factors in assigning an aesthetic (and therefore financial) value to Chinese furniture. Such considerations are often denied in Ai Weiwei's furniture; however, despite its construction being a technical tour de force, its functionality can be rendered redundant (as in the case of Table with two legs) or made perilous (as in Table with two legs on the wall).
The high value placed by the international market on Ming and early Qing furniture has led to a preoccupation with issues of authenticity. Poor or spurious restorations abound with tables cut down to create more marketable forms, reconfigured to become 'rarities', or largely reconstructed using contemporary or recycled timber (not always easy to detect given that some restorations may have happened some centuries ago). Ai Weiwei's reconstructions are unabashedly his own. His is not an art of trickery or fakery in which the value of the object lies in its ability to deceive. Rather, Ai Weiwei's reconstructed furniture redeploys the materials and techniques of traditional furniture-making to subvert notions of aesthetic, functional and economic value.
1. Huang Ri (ed.). Beijing 798: Reflections on art, architecture and society in China. Timezone 8 and Thinking Hands, Hong Kong, China, 2004, p.25.