Standing Figure, 2016
In a new work created specifically for the exhibition at the Museum of Cycladic Art, Ai builds a bridge between his practice and Greece’s history, engaging directly with the Museum’s permanent collection alongside of which his work now sits. Standing Figure is a marble colossus, a schematic, upright male figure with the smooth, angular features which characterise much of the sculpture of the Cycladic art. The work directly references marble figurines of the Spedos variety, which were prevalent during the Syros phase of the Early Cycladic period (2800-2300 BC). Its elegant, elongated oval head, triangular nose, slender body and small, wide-set breasts quote the style of the Goulandris Master to whom the popular vernacular of third millennium BC sculpture is attributed.
Ai adopts this icon of ancient culture and personalises it. The scale of the delicate figures is augmented dramatically to life-size, transforming the modest Cycladic models into a towering deity. The figure’s arms, which in the original Cycladic manner are crossed at the chest, are here outstretched, hands wide apart. This stance implies openness, but also visually references one of Ai’s most canonical works: his infamous photographic series Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn. The three photographs show Ai, stoic-faced, letting an ancient urn from the Chinese Han dynasty (221–207 BC) slip from his outstretched hands and shatter on the ground at his feet.
The work references the willful destruction of China’s antique objects, taking place during Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). In Standing Figure, Ai is replaced by a life-sized artefact. The small Cycladic figurine is given agency and power, no longer a fragile, vulnerable trace of the past, but rather a powerful figure judging the destruction of heritage. As well as directly mimicking works from the Museum of Cycladic Art’s collection, Ai’s new work reflects on contemporary China and Greece, their identification and attachment to their pasts, and their different treatment of history.