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Cut In Red

Bringing life to an ancient practice of paper-cutting and addressing our turbulent present, Ai Weiwei’s recently released limited edition portfolio by Taschen is a stunning combination of activism and artistic revival

Photograph of the Ai Weiwei: The Papercut Portfolio, Edition of 250. Portfolio of eight papercuts, each signed by Ai Weiwei, 60 cm x 60 cm, in clothbound clamshell box. All Images Courtesy of the Artist and TASCHEN.

Ancient and yet poignant to the present status quo, Ai Weiwei’s Papercut Portfolio is a striking revival of Jianzhi, a paper-cutting tradition from China with its earliest example dating all the way back to the 6th century A.D. The format breaks free of tradition by not only adopting a square layout instead of the usual circle stencil, but also with its subtlety and intricacy translated into bold statements. The eight papercuts are each signed by the artist and explained beautifully by Chin Chin Yap, the artist’s long-time collaborator and friend. 

Photograph of the Ai Weiwei: The Papercut Portfolio, Edition of 250. Portfolio of eight papercuts, each signed by Ai Weiwei, 60 cm x 60 cm, in clothbound clamshell box. All Images Courtesy of the Artist and TASCHEN.

Viscerally tracing his heritage and his artistic journey through a variety of visuals, Ai Weiwei thrusts the viewer into a red maze. Our gaze shifts easily between the positive and negative spaces and yet slows to address the complex composition.  Each papercut folio is extensive and covers a different aspect of the artist’s experiences. 

In New York, the artist addresses the time that he spent in the city developing his language and style. He was a part of ‘Stars’, a seminal group of painters from Beijing, but then broadened his scope towards the city by transforming found objects into surreal sculptures. Channelling the fervour and bold richness of concept of Andy Warhol’s prints, Ai Weiwei’s cut-out of New York is ‘encircled by a bordure of the Manhattan skyline’, and ‘this folio features some of Ai’s early works from the time, including Three Clothes Hangers as a Star (1983) and Safe Sex (1986), a raincoat perforated by the artist with a ring and a condom, because around that time everybody was so scared about AIDS’.

Photograph of the Ai Weiwei: The Papercut Portfolio, Edition of 250. Portfolio of eight papercuts, each signed by Ai Weiwei, 60 cm x 60 cm, in clothbound clamshell box. All Images Courtesy of the Artist and TASCHEN.
Addressing the issue of the loss of heritage items to the conquests of the West, the Zodiac papercut is a rendered version of the traditional Chinese zodiac animal heads, once found on the water clock fountain that was gifted to the Emperor Qianlong (1711-1799). It was designed by the Italian Jesuit Giuseppe Castiglione and was disassembled and lost to the spoils of the Opium War. As though addressing our doubts about their location, Ai asks, ‘Are they truly lost, or at the auction house?’

With incredibly strong notes of dissent and absolute certainty, the artist cements his ideas quite deeply into our minds. One cannot help but be in awe of his perseverance and his voice that continues to ravage our illusions of a peaceful world.

Photograph of the Ai Weiwei: The Papercut Portfolio, Edition of 250. Portfolio of eight papercuts, each signed by Ai Weiwei, 60 cm x 60 cm, in clothbound clamshell box. All Images Courtesy of the Artist and TASCHEN.

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