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Using the traditional Chinese art of the papercut, Ai Weiwei’s Cats and Dogs reflects on a decisive period in the artist’s life and work: from his return to Beijing in 1993 after a decade-long stay in New York to building his renowned Caochangdi home and studio on the Beijing outskirts in 1999. At the center of the papercut, he gives the finger to the Forbidden City, effectively obscuring the portrait of Mao Zedong that presides over Tiananmen Square. This motif is from a 1995 photo- graph that marked the beginning of his series Studies of Perspective, in which his outstretched middle finger measured the Eiffel Tower, the Mona Lisa, the White House, and many other sights and non-sites around the world. Another famil- iar trope of Ai’s Beijing years was the word “FUCK,” which he sunburned into his chest for a photo piece and installed as a huge neon sign in his garden. Ai’s Chinese company is named FAKE—pronounced closely to “fuck” in Chinese.
In this period, Ai developed two iconoclastic groups of works with Neolithic vases or antique Ming (1368 –1644) and Qing Dynasty (1644–1912) furniture. Han Dynasty Urn with Coca-Cola Logo (1994)—of which two versions can be seen in the papercut—brands a historical artifact with the trademark of contemporary capitalism. “The Coca-Cola logo is a clear announcement of property, and of cultural or political identity,” Ai says. “But it is also a clear sign to stop thinking. It’s full of ignorance, but it’s also a redefinition.” He also joined Ming and Qing Dynasty tables into sculptural permutations such as Table with Two Legs on the Wall (1997; upper right), Table with Crossed Corners (1998; lower right), Table with Three Legs (1998; lower left), and Tables at Right Angles (1998; upper right). All carpentry was done using traditional mortise and tenon techniques, fitting the pieces together without nails or glue. “We took great care with the cutting and sanding to make sure the patina of the furniture looked untouched,” Ai explains. “Even an expert would be con- fused because everything is so perfect.” Among these tables, Stool (1997; middle left) stands out as the poor cousin. It is composed of a pair of three-legged stools, ubiquitous to every Chinese household, sharing a leg.
Ai Weiwei’s cats, numbering over forty, have become famous in their own right. Among other animals, including dogs, peacocks, and hedgehogs, they freely roam his studio and garden at 258 Caochangdi, and are inscrutable fixtures in thousands of selfies with visitors from all around the world. A short film, 258 Cats, was made about them in 2013.
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