As visitors approach the gallery, they will be confronted by a massive tree in the center of the courtyard that contrasts with the living specimens that dominate it at present. For many years Ai had been collecting wooden beams and pillars from disused Ming and Qing dynasty temples for use in his own work and in 2009 he began acquiring dead wood from mountain ranges in Jiangxi that led to the creation of a spectacular series of sculptural trees.
In complete contrast to the elegant simplicity of Ming dynasty furniture, there is a long tradition in China of fabricating furniture and decorative objects from naturally contorted wood. Ai carries this to a new level, using traditional wood assembly methods to assemble branches, roots and trunks of unrelated trees into hybrid forms that commemorate the strength and endurance that enabled them to survive for hundreds or perhaps even thousands of years. The tree on display in Chambers’ courtyard is one of the most dramatic of the entire series, extravagant in its piling up of writhing forms that resemble the coiling dragons that feature so prominently in the Chinese imagination.
In complete contrast are the two works inside the gallery, one minimal in form, the other comprising approximately 3,500 porcelain shards. Ai first used crystal as a material in 2002 in Chandelier, the work he submitted to the 2002 Guangzhou Triennial. This consisted of thousands of small, faceted crystal forms assembled in the shape of a giant chandelier and offering a pointed commentary on the excesses of contemporary, nouveau-riche interior decoration, but in the series of crystal cubes the material is presented as solid blocks of unprecedented scale. Formally, they descend from American minimalism of the 1960s and are a continuation of Ai’s one -cubic meter series which include Ton of Tea, Cube in Ebony and Marble Cube but the transparent nature of the material results in disorienting spatial effects. In whatever medium he works, Ai challenges formerly accepted limitations in the handling of materials, never more so than in the series of crystal cubes that challenge the skills of the glass-making professionals and frequently end in failure.
While the crystal cube is a fabricated object, Tiger, Tiger, Tiger consists of approximately 3,000 porcelain shards, each of which bears an image of a tiger painted in a wide variety of styles. Laid side by side on the floor, this variegated carpet of blue and white porcelain shards conflates Ai’s love-hate relationship with the ceramic traditions of China and his love of cats, a considerable number of which roam at liberty in his home and studio. Since 1994 when he first dropped a Han dynasty urn, he has investigated notions of authenticity, antiquity, and value in a challenging series of works which have involved fabricating, shattering, pulverizing, and covering ancient vessels with house-paint. Although generally regarded as an iconoclast, there is a sense in which Ai is also a committed conservationist, giving new value to discarded structural elements from Ming and Qing dynasty temples in his sculptural works, reconstructing the Ming dynasty ancestral hall currently on view in the 798 Art District and now with Tiger, Tiger, Tiger, giving metaphorical meaning to thousands of shards that have great interest for scholars but are of limited appeal to the general public. Rescued from