The Cultutal Re-Interpretations of a Generation: Ai Weiwei

Written by Andrew Nakamoto

Ai Weiwei (b.1957) is a Chinese multidisciplinary visual artist, iconoclast and activist who is arguably one the most important and controversial figures in 21st-century contemporary art. This discussion paper will delve into his multifaceted practice to investigate how traditions and histories from Chinese culture have been utilised to form new meanings and perspectives through the analysis of a selection of artworks. Firstly, Ai’s manipulation and re-interpretation of subjects from Chinese culture to challenge pre-existing understandings through the use of the readymade will be unpacked in the works ‘Han Dynasty Urn with Coca-Cola Logo’ (1995) and ‘
Forever Bicycle
(2015-2016). Furthermore, the monumental work ‘Sunflower Seeds’ (2010) will be examined to discuss how he employs traditional mediums to re-interpret the understanding of subjects embedded in Chinese history. Lastly, Ai’s poignant use of cultural-historical references to make politically charged statements in his works ‘
Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn
’ (2015) and ‘He Xie’ (2010) will be analysed.

Through the use of the readymade, Ai intentionally intervenes with subject matter from Chinese history to subvert expectations and create new meanings. The sculptural work ‘Han Dynasty Urn with Coca-Cola Logo’ (1995) that later grew into an ongoing series, is a prime example of his simple yet effective acts of intervention. As the title spells out, Ai took what is a highly treasured artefact from the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), hand-painted the iconic pungent red Coca-Cola logo directly on top to converge Eastern heritage with Western modernity, subverting the original association and understandings of each element to create a new one through a contemporary lens. This work was executed shortly after his return from the United States, with evident influences as Ponzanesi et al. (2020, p. 220) comments how it is ‘an obvious symbol of Western ideals and reminiscent of mass production and Andy Warhol...’. This cultural juxtaposition is a humourous hybrid of antiquity and capitalism that underlines the tension between the preservation of tradition and rapid modernisation within China, a prevailing narrative that echoes throughout Ai’s practice.

Ai re-interprets traditional mediums and pushes their understanding further through the immersive work ‘Sunflower Seeds’ that covered Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in 2010 with a hundred million individually hand-painted life-sized porcelain sunflower seeds. The historic medium of porcelain, synonymous with Chinese culture, has been repurposed to recreate the everyday street snack that has been a part of Ai’s childhood and Chinese society at large. The immense quantity alludes to the sheer vastness of China’s population as Ai unveils in a Journal of Media Practice article how ‘the fact that each seed is individual yet at the same time looks identical to the others. And when they’re accumulated in this large number, they become something else.’ This sea of individually unique seeds touches on the sentiment of the individual in society as, ‘you see it and you don’t see it because it disappears through this massiveness.’ (Hancox 2012).

From a Western perspective, interpretations of the work can focus more on the political iconography of the sunflower seed. When the work opened at the Tate Modern, University of London graduate student Simone Hancox (2012) mentions in ‘Art, activism and the geopolitical imagination: Ai Weiwei's ‘Sunflower Seeds’ how, ‘western critics, in general, received it as a provocative work, reading it primarily as a metaphor of dissent against China’s undemocratic regime.’ This angle links the symbolism of the sunflower seed as a reference to the Cultural Revolution in China’s 60s and 70s where leader Chairman Mao was characterised as the sun, and the people as sunflower seeds turning towards him in faith. Ai explains how, ‘sunflowers supported the whole revolution, spiritually and in material ways.’

From a more domestic Eastern perspective, this work can be received as a representation of China’s hyper-growth in global capitalism and advances in mass manufacturing that cater for international demand. The 1600 artisans from Jingdezhen, the founding city of porcelain, were employed by Ai to hand paint and fire every single sunflower seed in a 30-step process that spanned over two years. The entire village's labour dedicated to this tedious process acts as a subtle metaphor that mirrors the reality of the consumerism, mass-production and labour workforce that was embedded in Chinese society and has propelled itself into a global powerhouse fulfilling these market demands. Ai’s sunflower seeds encourage viewers to contemplate the impacts of this mass global consumption and force pushing behind it (Zheng 2012).

Political commentary is a prevalent theme throughout Ai’s practice as he transforms traditions and histories to expresses his dissidence on the Chinese government and present critical statements that reference the past and present. One of Ai’s most well-known works, ‘Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn’ (2015) literally and figuratively shatters tradition by utilising another ‘cultural ready-made’ in a series of three black and white photographs that capture him dropping a 2000-year-old ceremonial Han Dynasty urn, smashing at his feet. This highly valuable artifact holds extreme cultural significance and symbolism originating from the Han Dynasty, one of the most defining periods in China’s dynastic history. Through the deliberate destruction of this cultural work, Ai is breaking apart from the long-standing history and preservation of heritage embodied by this object, challenging society’s cultural values of the past (Ponzanesi 2020). While the subject matter is embedded in traditional Chinese history, Ai’s intentions simultaneously embody the idea of radical destruction of tradition heavily seen in the Western avant-garde movements.

Through this unconventional but simple act, he creates a significant statement that can be perceived as destruction or a collaboration with ancient artists and revitalising its understanding and significance. A hostile reception was received from the public and antique collectors who deemed it an unethical act to destroy such precious artifacts under any circumstance or for the sake of art (Patrias 2019). Ai counters by explaining how ‘Mao used to tell us that we can only build a new world if we destroy the old one.’ This is a direct reference to the widescale destruction of artifacts during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution that proclaimed to build a new society, the si jiu must be destroyed: past ideas, culture, habits and customs. The sensationalism of such gesture has commanded edition to be sold at prices that far exceed the value of the urn itself. It can be argued that Ai is not destroying a work but rather creating a new one by completely transforming the original understanding of the object, challenging people’s values to create a greater level of attention than the original work could have done by itself. Despite the debates about the urn’s integrity as art, the power and poignancy of this act force viewers to question the value of antiquity in modern society as well as point to the hypocrisy of the government (Ponzanesi 2020).

Another example of the political commentary embedded in his work is the installation ‘He Xie’ (2010) where Weiwei constructs a subtle but poignant multilayered metaphor through the clever wordplay of the Chinese word He xie. The work consists of over 3000 life-like porcelain crabs that have been painted either grey or red and scattered in a chaotic scene piled on the floor. Like other works, Ai’s process of production again utilises the skills of Jingdezhen artisans to create this traditional medium. The Chinese word He xie translates to river crab, but has the same pronunciation as the word ‘harmonious’, which is a common slogan of the Communist party: ‘The realization of a harmonious society.’ Furthermore, He xie is also a popular euphemism for internet censorship, which is strongly enforced online by the Chinese government. This work quickly led to the government censoring the word ‘He Xie’ online. The traditional porcelain medium is used again in this work to make a profound statement, this time in the form of the beloved seafood river crab that has embedded roots in Chinese history. The tightly packed crabs act as a symbol for each individual in a crowd including Ai himself who all face the restrictive censorship by authorities, stagnant and bound within a set space unable to escape (Lentz 2019).

In conclusion, Ai Weiwei’s extensive body of work integrates and manipulates traditions and histories from Chinese culture to construct new meanings and perspectives through contemporary art. Firstly, how Ai subverts and intervenes with subjects from Chinese culture to generate new perspectives through the use of the readymade in ‘Han Dynasty Urn with Coca-Cola Logo’ (1995) and ‘
Forever Bicycle
’ (2015-2016). Secondly, how he employs the traditional medium of porcelain in the work ‘Sunflower Seeds’ (2010) to re-interpret and revitalise this subject embedded in Chinese history. Lastly, in the works ‘Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn’ (2015) and ‘He Xie’ (2010), Weiwei makes poignant use of cultural-historical references to make politically charged statements in his works. Through wit, simplicity, subtlety and poignancy, Ai Weiwei is arguably one of the most important contemporary artists like no other.

Figure 1: Ai Weiwei, Han Dynasty Urn with Coca-Cola Logo, 1995. Ceramic and paint. M+ Sigg Collection.  

Figure 2: Ai Weiwei,
Forever Bicycle
, 2015-2016. Stainless steel bicycle frames. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Loti & Victor Smorgon Fund, 2017. © Ai Weiwei Studio

Figure 3: Ai Weiwei, Sunflower Seeds, 2010. Porcelain. The interior of the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern.

Figure 4: Ai Weiwei,
Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn
, 2015. Plastic on composition board. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Loti & Victor Smorgon Fund, 2017. © Ai Weiwei Studio

Figure 5: Ai Weiwei, He Xie, 2010. Installation view at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC, 2012. Photo: Cathy Carver. © Ai Weiwei Studio 

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Kayser, C 2016, 'The Artist As Activist As Artist: Ai Weiwei At The Royal Academy, London’, Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, Vol. 3, pp. 201-205.

Lentz, A 2019, 'Art + Politics = Activism: The Work of Ai Weiwei’, Art Education Journal, Vol.73 (1), p.52-58.

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Weiwei, A 2010, Sunflower Seeds, porcelain, Tate, viewed 15 April 2021,  <>.
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