Conceptual artist, architectural designer, and social activist Ai Weiwei is one of the leading cultural figures of his generation and arguably China’s most prominent artist. Working with sculpture, installation, performance, photography, and curatorial projects, Ai has consistently put himself at risk in an attempt to effect social change through his work. He is frequently at odds with the Chinese government for his stance on free speech and human rights, and in April 2011 he was put in prison for nearly three months on charges of tax evasion.
Marble Chair is based on the 1,001 wooden chairs from the Ming and Qing dynasties Ai used in his 2007 installation, Fairytale, in Kassel, Germany. One-thousand-andone Chinese volunteers signed up through his blog to sit on the chairs during the project. In March 2009, he showed sixteen marble chairs in an exhibition in London. In Marble Chair, Ai reproduces the design of the wooden antique prototype onto a single block of striated marble, a medium often used for monuments and gravestones, which memorializes and translates the traditional chair into a place of permanence.
The reinterpretation of the 2007 installation raises questions of history, memory, cultural authority, and modernization. Marble Chair suggests that the rush of “progress” takes its toll not only on the people, but also on the culture that is lost within the change. The empty chair evokes the absent figure, an effect made more visceral during the artist’s recent incarceration by the Chinese government.
This new acquisition, purchased with funds from the estate of former Duke professor Wallace Fowlie, is currently on view at the Nasher Museum with other works by contemporary Chinese artists.