Your Collection: Ai Weiwei’s Tree

Ai Weiwei, Tree (2009–10), wood and steel, 510 x 515 x 511 cm installed. NGC

Ai Weiwei’s Tree (2009–10) stands a towering five metres in height, and spans the same distance at its upper reaches. A commanding yet enchanting presence in Gallery B105, Tree is flanked to the west by the late Sol LeWitt’s experiment with colour and asymmetry, Wall Drawing No. 623 Double asymmetrical pyramids with colour ink washes superimposed, 14 November 1989–17 November 1989. To the east, ordered rows of crabapple trees are viewable through the tall windows behind Ai’s sculpture — twelve trees planted just so by landscape architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander for the opening of Moshe Safdie’s National Gallery of Canada (NGC) building in 1988.

Ai Weiwei was in New York City at that time, having left China for the United States in 1981. In 1993, he returned to China — not by choice, but out of concern and dedication to an ailing father. As a result, Ai watched the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre from afar, although it was the censorship and imprisonment of numerous friends and fellow artists in China in the late 1970s that had led to his self-exile to begin with.

While in New York, Ai encountered firsthand the work of Marcel Duchamp, the “forefather” of Conceptual Art, and the artist without whom there would have been no LeWitt, and quite possibly no — or at least not the same — Andy Warhol. “After Duchamp,” Ai has stated (with a Warholian tinge, to be sure), “being an artist is more about a lifestyle and attitude than producing some product.”

Ai’s significant oeuvre since the mid-1990s is indeed owed to a combination of attitude — felt palpably in the his guiding mantra, “Everything is Art, Everything is Politics” — and in the production of an exceptional caste of works created through the re-imagination of original parts that the artist himself did not produce. From Qing Dynasty tables cut and geometrically reshaped, to a Tang Dynasty vase painted with the immediately recognizable logo of Western consumption and all things “pop” — Coca-Cola — Ai imbues the Duchampian tradition of the readymade with a conviction attuned to contemporary geopolitics and aesthetic sensibility.

Ai Weiwei, Tree (2009–10), wood and steel, 510 x 515 x 511 cm installed. NGC

Tree follows suit in this regard, fabricated, as this magnificent sculpture is, from well-aged tree trunks and branches from the mountainous regions of Southern China. A consummate collector of all kinds of objects — which he keeps on the grounds of his Beijing studio until they find artistic purpose within his idea-based vocabulary, Ai had been buying parts of old trees for years from markets in Jingdezhen, Jiangxi Province. He fabricated twelve “Trees” in 2009–2010, eight of which were shown outdoors at the Royal Academy (RA), London, during a major 2015 survey on the artist at the storied British institution. Here’s how RA curator Adrian Locke came to his understanding of this body of work:

When I was in Beijing for my first meeting with Ai Weiwei I went, as most people do, to visit the Forbidden City. I was astonished to see people taking photographs of themselves next to a dead tree in the Imperial Garden at the far north of the complex, adjacent to the Hall of Imperial Peace. In China, trees are venerated as important counterparts to the dead on earth, the realm between heaven and the underworld. This particular long-dead tree clearly held particular significance, perhaps as an indicator of the venerable age of the temple, linking the past to the present. When I saw this, it made me immediately think of Ai’s Tree series that he started in 2009.

Featuring the natural brown-grey patina of the old, dead wood from which it is formed, the NGC’s Tree is shaped in a subtle yet apparent contrapposto, thrust around two main branches stemming from the sculpture’s enormous trunk. Ai used a traditional “hidden mortise-and-tenon joint” method to fashion the twenty or so branches of Tree, adding sturdy nuts and bolts to ensure structural support.

Using otherwise discarded natural materials and bringing them back to “life” within the context of art, Tree presents a compelling dialogue between the forces of nature and the means through which human civilizations have set out to control and create order. Ai has suggested that he was inspired by the idea of making a series of unique trees “from 100 different locations and belonging to different types of trees.” He continues, “We assembled them together to have all the details of a normal tree. At the same time, you’re not comfortable, there’s a strangeness there, an unfamiliarness. And it’s just like imagining what the tree was like.”

Ai Weiwei, Tree (2009–10), wood and steel, 510 x 515 x 511 cm installed. NGC

In Ai’s rendering of the one from the diverse many, Tree has been read as a metaphor for the modern Chinese state: a vast expanse of culturally and politically disparate regions whose sovereignty is promoted through the country’s official “One China” policy. That political commentary could be associated with Tree is not all that surprising, given that it was made at a particularly strained moment in the artist’s relationship with the Chinese State (Ai was detained under house arrest for 81 days in 2011, and only regained his passport in July 2015).

What makes Ai Weiwei’s work so compelling, however, is the manner through which issues of particular context and consequence — concerns over international policy, or indeed the many self-conscious references his pieces make about art’s own history of relations between East and West — are allegorized and rendered universal. In this, Tree is exemplary: a readymade work of art centuries in the making, Ai’s contemporary sculpture does what the best art has done throughout time, forging a visually poetic dialogue over humanity’s place in the broader order of things.

Ai Weiwei’s Tree is currently on view in the National Gallery’s Contemporary Art Gallery B105. Photography of the artwork is permitted.

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