The initial sketch of Ai Weiwei's Descending Light and the final sculpture on show at Mary Boone Gallery, New York


The reason why Ai Weiwei is the world's most powerful artist

An exclusive look at how Descending Light went from scruffy sketch to decadent sculpture

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Who would have thought that this scruffy sketch on a scrap of notepaper would become one of Ai Weiwei's most politically and sensually charged sculptures - a monumental red chandelier lying on the floor, apparently having fallen there.

In the week that Ai Weiwei was named the most powerful artist in the world by Art Review, Phaidon can reveal a series of photographs chronicling the genesis of one of his most famous works.

Click through the images to see how Descending Light (2007) progressed from this sketch through wire maquette to brass frame and lastly the finished artwork, covered in red glass crystal beads - all of which appear intact and the light still working despite its 'fall'.

The decisive element of the work, the colour red, appears in various symbolic forms throughout Chinese culture. In twentieth-century China, red was the colour of progress and revolution (as evidenced in the Red Guard, Chairman Mao's Little Red Book and the red flag). But in pre-Revolutionary China, it was the symbol of pleasure, desire, happiness, plenitude and, most of all, luck. Ai Weiwei's piece also bears relation to the film Raise The Red Lantern, set in the 1920s and directed by Zhang Yimou, with whom Weiwei studied at the Beijing Film Academy.

In the film, the lantern became a symbol of power between the various warring factions of the household. In 21st century China, elaborate chandeliers are still a crucial part of the décor in luxury hotels and restaurants. Whatever the context, this kind of lighting always signifies splendour and celebration. 

But in Ai's piece, the symbol of the lantern is lying on the ground: the party is over, there is no longer anything to celebrate. Descending Light is a perplexing object: a fallen chandelier, horizontal rather than vertical, collapsed but still in working order, majestic in its decadence, splendid and fragile, sensual and revolutionary red, revealing and mysterious, symbolic and impenetrable. Looking at its humble beginnings you begin to realise why he was voted number one.


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Ai Weiwei, Phaidon Press