Ton of Tea, 2005
Pu’er tea leaves from Yunnan province with wooden base.
100 x 100 x 100 cm. (39 1/2 x 39 1/2 x 39 1/2 in).
“Don’t touch,” Ai says, aware of the temptation… “You break it, you drink it.”
(B. Pollack, A Bowl of Pearls, a Ton of Tea, and an Olympic Stadium. Artnews, October 2006, p. 165)
Sumptuous in nature and scope, Ai Weiwei’s recent works undertake a scale and sophistication that verge on mimicking the luxury they claim to decry. “Tea” is one of a group of Ai’s unique works in the last few years that appropriate traditional symbols of political or cultural value into new, double-edged configurations every bit as impressively executed as the originals. In the same vein as “Tea” are works such as “Fountain of Light” (2007) after Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International, the “Descending Light” chandelier collapsing upon its own scarlet finery, and the gargantuan “Bowls of Pearls” that bear thousands of imperfect pearls as a scathing commentary on corruption.
As the name implies, “Ton of Tea” comprises a ton of prized Pu’er tea leaves from Yunnan exactingly pressed into a perfect cube one meter square. The extravagant minimalism of the work lies in the artist’s exacting craftsmanship that gives rise to the precision of the work’s dimensions and mass. Conceptually, the work refers to two main strands in Ai’s oeuvre: the first is our value systems which determine the status and desirability of given items such as antiques, furniture, or tea. Tea was a vastly sought-after commodity that occupied a starring role in global economic history prior to the Industrial Revolution: it was one of the main commodities traded by Britain’s East India Company during the Empire’s glory days, and directly triggered the anti-establishment Boston Tea Party revolt of 1773. Secondly, the work comments on associated issues of globalization and the colossal industrial empire behind contemporary China’s “cultural exports”; as Ai frequently implies, what passes for Chinese culture today is always the locus of a complex web of production and authenticity. As a wry coda, “Ton of Tea” is also “‘a skewed interpretation of the phrase ‘all the tea in China’” (Pollack, id.)—a tongue-in-cheek depiction of the impossible, as it were, and why that remains so.