As an intern in the Registrar’s department at the Nasher Museum of Art, I have been working to catalogue the collection and create artist files that correspond to the artwork files already in our database. Poring through these files is an interesting process. You’re bound to find plenty of dry documents that tell you nothing about the artist or their background but, at the same time, you could come across a treasure, like a handwritten letter or biography by someone who knew the artist well, depending on what time period of art you are working with.
It was the act of searching through these files, and a little online research, that led me to Ai Weiwei. I found him remarkable in that he was not just an artist but an activist who used social media in a unique way to further his causes.
Ai Weiwei’s Marble Chair is, quite literally, a marble chair, but with much more symbolic meaning. The sculpture is notably carved from one block of marble and meant to represent the contrast between old and new traditions, those that continue and those that perish. It also has a personal meaning: when Weiwei’s father was exiled during the Chinese Revolution, one of the few items they were allowed to keep was a “traditional yoke-back chair.”
Weiwei is perhaps most famously recognized for his 2011 arrest and the public response to this event. On April 3rd, 2011, he was taken into custody from the Beijing airport, ostensibly caused by his “incomplete departure procedures.” The Chinese government later reported that he was under investigation for “economic crimes.” Because Weiwei’s family was not informed of his location post arrest, the artist was thought to have disappeared. Various museums and foundations, including the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, organized petitions and protests against Weiwei’s arrest. On July 22nd, 2011, Weiwei was finally released from jail.
What is so fascinating about Weiwei is that his life functions as his art. He is not only remarkable because he can fashion a chair from marble that aims to represent the sharp dichotomy in Chinese cultural beliefs, but also because he uses his life as a canvas. Although his arrest clearly posed an obstacle in his quest to unflinchingly portray the world, Weiwei somehow turned his predicament into a way to unite and inspire.
More on Marble Chair here
IMAGE: Ai Weiwei, Marble Chair, 2008. Marble, 47 x 22 x 18 inches. Edition unique. Collection of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. Purchase with funds provided by the Estate of Wallace Fowlie. Courtesy of the artist and Lisson Gallery, London. Photo by Peter Paul Geoffrion.