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Ai Weiwei’s Charm

Free Speech Pendant.

The Vancouver Art Gallery’s Artist Edition program has produced purchasable artworks exclusive to the Gallery Store from the likes of Yang Fudong, Rodney Graham, Antoni Muntadas, and a dozen other internationally acclaimed artists. Artist Editions are produced in limited quantities and have secured the interest of contemporary art collectors—earlier this year, Douglas Coupland’s Lego as Self-Portrait (2014), an edition of 25, sold out within three hours of its launch.

Ai Weiwei is the most recent artist to create an exclusive artwork for the program, in conjunction with Unscrolled: Reframing Tradition in Chinese Contemporary Art, on display at the Vancouver Art Gallery until April 2015. Free Speech Pendant, a double-sided, hand-painted porcelain pendant, is inspired by the exhibition, which features work by contemporary artists whose practices are impacted by their cultural heritage. Free Speech Pendant is Ai’s interpretation of a Chinese ornamental charm, dating back to the Han Dyansty. Initially worn by individuals to attract wealth, luck, and longevity, the pendants became a reflection of social status depending on the material (typically wood for the working class and jade or porcelain for the upper class). Ai is no stranger to porcelain, traditionally regarded as the highest art form in China—his 2010 work Sunflower Seeds, comprised of 100 million hand-painted sunflower seed replicas, took over two and a half years and 1,600 artisans to complete. On the pendant, the phrase “Free Speech” replaces conventional markings referring to family or clan, a statement that marries an item of historical significance with Ai’s modern art practices. Only 60 limited editions of Free Speech Pendant have been produced, a smaller feat in comparison, with proceeds benefiting gallery programs.