DescriptionAi Weiwei (b. 1957)
Surveillance Camera, 2010
14 x 15-1/2 x 7-1/2 inches (35.6 x 39.4 x 19.1 cm)
This work is number 8 from a series of 14 unique works
Galerie Urs Meile, Lucerne;
Private collection, United States.
Lisson Gallery, London, "Ai Weiwei," May 16-July 16, 2011 (another example exhibited);
Hirshhorn Museum of Art, Washington D.C, "Ai Weiwei: According to What?," October 7, 2012-February 24, 2013 (another example exhibited);
[The above exhibition also traveled to] Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis, April 5-July 21, 2013, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, August 17-October 27, 2013, and Brooklyn Museum of Art, April 18-August 10, 2014;
Blenheim Palace Art Foundation, Woodstock, "Ai Weiwei at Blenheim Palace," October 1 2014-April 26, 2015 (another example exhibited);
Royal Academy of Arts, London, "Ai Weiwei," September 19-December 12, 2015 (another example exhibited).
Ai Weiwei, Mami Kataoka, and Charles Merewether, Ai Weiwei: According to What?, DelMonico Books, Prestel, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 2012, n.p.;
K. Harvey, Encyclopedia of Social Media and Politics, SAGE Publications, Inc., Thousand Oaks, 2014. p. 80, illus.;
T. Marlow, Ai Weiwei, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2015, n.p.
This lot is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity from Galerie Urs Meile, Beijing-Lucerne, signed by the artist and dated February 21, 2011.
Surveillance Camera (2010) is a reflection on contemporary China and on the role of art. The work exemplifies the methods, materials and concerns of Ai Weiwei (born in Beijing in 1957), one of the most recognized artists of our time, throughout his increasingly successful career.
The sculpture is a clear example of Ai's method: the combination of traditional Chinese modes of production, Duchampian appropriation and conceptual art principles. The sculpture was hand-carved from a single block of white marble from a quarry near Beijing, which served Imperial China and was also used in Mao Tse Tung's mausoleum - a material of great importance in Chinese cultural history. Additionally, it was modeled on the cameras that were positioned by police outside Ai's house - now accompanied by red lanterns that the artist has hung. As is well known, Ai was placed under house arrest and surveillance by the Chinese police in November 2010. Modeling the sculpture on a surveillance camera illustrates the move from Duchamp's earlier readymades to conceptual art, i.e., from the appropriation of pre-existing objects to a focus on ideas. In fact, the French artist is a clear reference in Ai's work. See, for example, the reference to Bicycle Wheel (1913) in the ongoing series Forever (2003-) - sculptures in which Ai removes the primary function of the Forever bicycles, mass-produced in Shanghai since 1940 but increasingly rare on the streets of the city, and makes them static.
The combination of contemporary concerns with traditional Chinese references is also evident in earlier works, including Coca Cola (1994), a Han Dynasty urn emblazoned with the soft drink logo (an idea to which Ai has returned repeatedly), and the famous performance Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995), remembered in a black and white triptych. The photographs show Ai dropping a ceramic vase, which shatters on the floor at his feet. But while this performance was interpreted by art historian Charles Merewether as an iconoclastic act vis-à-vis Ai's own cultural history (see Ai Weiwei: Works, Beijing 1993-2003, 2003), Surveillance Camera hints at a more constructive approach toward Chinese culture: one in which the artist not only questions its core values, but also campaigns for its improvement. The Beijing-based art historian Karen Smith writes that his "audacious affront to conservative traditionalists, little different to Mao's own command to Red Guards to 'smash bourgeois inclinations' [prompts] questions of what culture is, and the power that regimes, history, cultural frameworks and ideologies exert in setting the parameters" [of our modes of behavior] ("Portrait of the Revolutionary as an Artist," in Ai Weiwei Catalogue, 2008, p.14). For this reason, Surveillance Camera is akin to other recent works by the artist, such as Sunflower Seeds (2010), exposed at the Tate Modern in London, where Ai scattered millions of unique porcelain seeds hand-crafted by hundreds of artisans - a commentary on the transformation of communist China into a society of mass consumption and on what they have in common: the rejection of individuality.
But there is another type of articulation at play in this work: the critique of the Chinese political establishment is accompanied by the demand for subdued contemplation by the viewers. The sculpture's seemingly accidental beauty, which emanates from its material, connotes yet again Ai's Duchampian influence. The French artist not only highlighted the primacy of the artist in defining what is art, but also defied the assumption that art must be beautiful. At the same time, the sculpture fuses the timelessness of marble with a practice that is clearly politically engaged. This makes evident a recent shift in Ai's practice. While his early works were only implicitly political, that has gradually changed since 2008. This shift is visible, for example, in Straight (2008-12), a work for which he straightened 150 tons of twisted steel rebar collected from destroyed schools at the site of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake (arguably due to their low construction standards).
Finally, the use of marble also conveys the centrality of repetition within traditional Chinese craftsmanship. This is clearly at odds with the most obvious subject of the sculpture: the constraints on Ai's freedom. The result is a reflection on the role of the artist in "a communal society [in which] our behaviour is inalienably tied to the sense of group, be that 'nation,' 'class,' or [...] 'enemy of the State'" (Weiwei quoted in ibid., p.13). More broadly, in what reveals the impact of Andy Warhol's work in his practice, one could also argue that Ai is here turning the surveillance cameras toward the western viewers and hence stressing the importance of the latter in his practice. That is, the fact that Ai can use his own political surveillance as a subject matter is framed by a cultural context shared by East and West alike: the global competition for visibility. It turns out that mass culture is not only a force of homogeneity - it can also give an artist like Ai Weiwei a global voice. - Mafalda Dâmaso
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