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Dropping A Han Dynasty Urn Analysis Essay

My T. Le

Ai Weiwei: According to What?
Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, Japan
July 25, 2009–November 8, 2009

After an exhibition introducing young Chinese contemporary artists, Follow Me!, in 2005, the Mori Art Museum is presenting its first retrospective dedicated to a Chinese contemporary artist, Ai Weiwei, entitled Ai Weiwei: According to What? This is one of Ai Weiwei’s largest solo shows ever held.

The choice of Ai Weiwei was easy to make, according to Mami Kataoka, Mori Art Museum Chief Curator. “Ai Weiwei is a distinguished artist in contemporary China in many ways, including his interdisciplinary activities and awareness of the social and political conditions of his own surroundings.”1

Ai Weiwei’s body of work over the past 20 years—installations, sculpture, design, photography, and films produced from combinations of materials and mediums and reminiscent of minimal/conceptual art—is about Chinese culture, history and society. His formal and analytical approach to creating new structures from ready-made and prefabricated objects leads the viewer to challenge traditional thinking about art and the role of the artist. From the particular relations between the basic architectural elements emerges a form dense or open, the understanding of which becomes the basis of endless conceptual perceptions.

The choice of materials and the use of traditional techniques show his determination to highlight in these artworks both his “Chineseness” and his active subversion of it….

In the first part of the exhibition, “Fundamental Forms and Volumes,” cubes and other polygonal shapes occupy the exhibition hall in a logical sequence using one meter as reference. Deprived of any particular use, the only goal of these geometric structures,inspired by the works of Sol LeWitt or Donald Judd,seems to be to engage the minds of viewers rather than their emotions.

“History is always the missing part of the puzzle in everything we do. I think we are coming from a long history and especially today, at the time of information age …. For the first time, we have an opportunity to know so much more and to understand mankind better, and what we have been through in the past.”—Ai Weiwei

In Cube in Ebony (2009) and Ton of Tea (2006), Ai Weiwei has produced two black cubes, which are one cubic meter in size. Cube in Ebony is made of carved rosewood boards several centimeters thick. Rosewood, which is a traditionally favored material for carving in China because of its hardness and density, has been considered one of the “three precious woods” since the Tang dynasty. The cube has been assembled according to traditional Chinese artisan techniques. Ton of Tea is made from Pu’er tea leaves, which were compressed into different forms, including disks and bricks, to ferment after picking. Representing the main unit in terms of weight and size, the material of this piece remains unchanged—a block of fermenting tea leaves.

The black cubes with minimalist shapes seem to be anode to geometry, creating a direct relation with the space that surrounds them. The real intent of the artist—whether it is a theoretical, philosophical, political, or poetic proposal—rests with the viewer, as he or she experiences the artwork as physical object and idea. Sol LeWitt wrote, “In conceptual art, the idea or the concept is the most important aspect of the work.”2 For Ai Weiwei these ascetic shapes illustrate both the artist’s relationship with Chinese culture and traditions and contemporary art.

The backpacks, used as ready-made, are challenging the original function of these everyday objects, and forcing them to be seen in a new way. They symbolize the thousands of schoolchildren crushed in shoddily-built schools in Beichuan County.

“My work relates to how to use our daily experience and our knowledge about our own history, and cultural surroundings; to use that language in contemporary conditions,” declared Ai Weiwei.3

The choice of materials and the use of traditional techniques show his determination to highlight in these artworks both his “Chineseness” and his active subversion of it, as in Bowl of Pearls (2006). This sculpture consists of a pair of bowls one meter in diameter filled with freshwater pearls. While abundance of pearls can symbolize wealth and provoke a strong desire, the large number displayed in the bowl is such that it triggers an opposite feeling. The feeling of value and preciousness commonly associated with pearls, when displayed in a small quantity, is replaced by an ordinary feeling despite the pearls’ inner beauty.

In the second section of the exhibition, “Structures and Craftsmanship,” basic forms are challenged. The art-works are developed in space through modularity and a combination of elements that require the viewer to interact. The highly sophisticated polygons have been replaced by basic building elements using highly skilled craftsmanship. The series of works on display in this section, deconstructing architectural models and objects, are evocative of the artist’s interest in Chinese heritage material and culture.

“I think in history, through art, and through all man-made activities, we not only apply craftsmanship because we want to overcome all the difficulties, but through craftsmanship, we have better understanding of ourselves and our own positions,” says Ai Weiwei.4 “If we push the boundaries of craftsmanship and artisanship, we see that they are not just mechanical skills,but they are actually an exploration of the very nature of the materials they employ.”

In Map of China (2008) multiple blocks of wood are assembled using traditional Chinese joinery techniques to form a map of the Middle Kingdom. The visible features of all blocks and the demarcation lines between them refer to the creation of modern China, when all regions with multiple historical, cultural, and political differences merged to create one single country. The elongated wood beams shaping the map are so high that the viewer must first pay attention to them and their unique features before creating any narrative. The beams seem to evoke the extent of Chinese history,whose roots run deep in the past. However, the map built on a flat surface leads the viewer to think that by flattening all construction elements, all differences have been erased.

Yet, the act of dropping an ancient urn, thus destroying two-thousand years of tradition, culture, and history, refers to the role destruction plays in redefining art as well as culture.

The third section of the exhibition, “Reforming and Inheriting Tradition,” leads us to discover another aspect of the artist’s body of works, reflecting on art, its meaning, and its role in our society and culture. Using a wide range of mediums, the artist shares his attraction to ancient Chinese art and symbols while dissociating preconceived ideas about art from the physical presence of objects.

“History is always the missing part of the puzzle in everything we do,” stated Ai Weiwei.5 “I think we are coming from a long history and especially today, at the time of information age. But we have not only under-stood our own past but also different pasts from different nations and different cultural backgrounds. For the first time, we have an opportunity to know so much more and to understand mankind better, and what we have been through in the past.”

The visible features of all blocks and the demarcation lines between them refer to the creation of modern China,when all regions with multiple historical, cultural, and political differences merged to create one single country.

In Forever (2003), 42 “Forever”-brand bicycles have been assembled in a circle in the middle of the room,creating a sculptural installation that shows a strong architectural influence. Unlike other works using wood beams, the bicycles are tightly joined, preventing the viewer from walking through or under them.

Playing on the name of the object, like Marcel Duchamp’s own language names, Ai Weiwei explores the multiple meanings of the assembled bicycles. Although the bicycles have lost their regular use and purpose, they still provide a sense of protection, unity,and harmony. But at the same time, this installation looks like a heroic and frivolous act of resistance, echoing the slow disappearance of bicycles—including those built by the once-leading manufacturer of bicycles in China—from all major Chinese cities as the country is modernizing.

In Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995), the artist has staged the act of dropping a Han dynasty urn on the floor. In this series of pictures, the artist is seen inaction with no facial expression, as if the urn’s value was nil from both a cultural and historical perspective. Photographing the artist’s performance while destroying the object is the ultimate goal, as it becomes a conceptual piece of art.

Yet, the act of dropping an ancient urn, thus destroying two-thousand years of tradition, culture, and history,refers to the role destruction plays in redefining art as well as culture. In this series of pictures, planes and perspectives are left aside. Surface disappears. The status of the object (its coherence, its limits, etc.…) is challenged by new ideas and values, anthropological and social, emerging through art.

But is it art? Is this urn real or fake? What is the value related to it? For Ai Weiwei the key questions are what is really new and what is the method of making something new? Can we even make something new?

His iconoclastic method of shattering traditional values,cultural and political authority, and power is also shown in Snake Ceiling (2009). “This new work reflects his activities related to last year’s Sichuan earthquake,” says Mami Kataoka.6 Backpacks commonly used by elementary and middle school students are displayed in a serpentine shape suspended from the ceiling of the exhibition hall as if students were walking in pairs one behind the other.

“I think in history, through art, and through all man-made activities, we not only apply craftsmanship because we want to overcome all the difficulties, but through craftsmanship, we have better understanding of ourselves and our own positions . . . .” —Ai Weiwei

The backpacks are challenging the original function of these everyday objects, and forcing them to be seen in anew way. They symbolize the thousands of schoolchildren crushed in shoddily built schools in Beichuan County. The serpentine shape hanging from the ceiling refers to traditional Chinese representation of the dragon, flying in the clouds, successfully overcoming difficulties.

Ai Weiwei’s interest in architecture is a recurrent theme throughout the exhibition. His recent multimedia works increasingly reflect his political and social engagement, from urban development to human rights issues. For example, in Fairytale (2007), he brought to the Documenta exhibition in Kassel, Germany, 1,001 Chinese participants to take part in a project focused on the individual experience of life as citizens of a Communist country where the importance of the individualism non-existent. As the impact of the project still resonates for participants long after the event itself, Ai Weiwei has described Fairytale as a much more interesting, rewarding project than any other.7

The real intent of the artist—whether it is a theoretical, philosophical, political, or poetic proposal—rests with the viewer as he or she experiences the artwork as physical object and idea.

“The aim of art is not being political but, according to Ai Weiwei’s approach, contemporary art is about finding who you are, and what you do,” says Mami Kataoka.8 “This fundamental approach naturally brings you to the question of one’s own life and reason for living.” And she adds: “This is something making Ai not political but sensitively political and socially aware.”




JANUARY 31, 2016

Left: Ai Weiwei, Chinese born 1957–
Williamsburg, Brooklyn 1983
from the New York Photographs series 1983‒93
Collection of Ai Weiwei
© Ai Weiwei

 

IN OUR AGE of the selfie and instant upload, the self-portrait has far different cultural and aesthetic values than it had in the past. It thus seems only appropriate that the National Gallery of Victoria, in Melbourne, Australia, should exploit this aesthetic form in the work of the two artists featured in their current exhibition, Andy Warhol|Ai Weiwei (AW|AW). The exhibition, which opened on December 11 and runs until April 24, pairs the work of an iconic American pop artist with that of a contemporary Chinese artist and political activist, and the result is fascinating.

One of the most magnetic self-portraits in the exhibition features Weiwei standing in front of a Warhol self-portrait. Taken during the period when Weiwei was living in New York, “At the Museum of Modern Art” (1987) sees Weiwei emulate one of Warhol’s ruminative “philosophic” poses, copying the faux-ironic posturing of one of the 20th century’s most famous artistic celebrities. This portrait represents — ironically enough — a powerful metaphor for the marriage between the two figures in the show, an index to our age of rampant self-representation, with its complex politics of selfhood, consumption, and communication.

Warhol’s confluence of pop culture and contemporary art was groundbreaking, destabilizing the elitism that separated art from the realms of mass culture and everyday life. Weiwei exists on a very different cultural and political plane, but one that, as his 1987 self-portrait suggests, was strongly influenced by Warhol. As an artist whose work and activism have led him to be exiled, jailed, and banned by the Chinese government, Weiwei’s art would seem, on the surface, to offer a stark contrast with Warhol’s interest in the glittery banality of the modern world. Over against Warhol’s ironic passivity — which included having others manufacture his artworks in his so-called “Factory” — is positioned Weiwei’s aggressive political work, which has publically shamed his country’s government by documenting its abysmal human rights record and the corruption that riddles modern Chinese life. The result of the union of these two artists is to unveil the deeply political undercurrent to Warhol’s iconic obsessions, as well as to foreground the provocative ways in which Weiwei has developed and extended them.

 

Even before the exhibition opened, it was shrouded in controversy. Danish toy company Lego decided not to supply Weiwei with the pieces he needed to complete new artworks commissioned for the exhibition, arguing that the company “cannot approve the use of Legos for political works.” But Weiwei was insistent and, after being inundated by fans with millions of Lego pieces, used them in a series of portraits of Australian activists and political campaigners for the exhibition.

Thus, from the outset, the exhibition was framed in political terms. Weiwei’s use of Legos connects his aesthetic with Warhol’s deployment of the banal objects of our ordinary material world, reconstituting these objects’ original bourgeois meaning. The Lego pieces have been used to recreate Weiwei’s controversial 1995 triptych “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn,” which saw the artist smash a rare antique vase. The recreation not only offers an ironic nod to his former work but also allegorizes our inability to actually destroy more contemporary signs and symbols of our over-saturated world of plastic consumables.

Returning to the issue of self-portraiture, what a portrait of the artist meant to Warhol is very different from what it represents for Weiwei. While Warhol used the form to comment on the increasingly arbitrary and blurred relationship between the original and its duplicates in a world of mass production, Weiwei’s self-portraits are more concerned with national identity and issues of censorship and autonomy. Inherently political, they are usually crude and unfiltered selfies that not only document his precarious identity as an outlaw artist in China but also — ironically enough — are infused with a powerful sense of originality and authenticity. A well-known user of Twitter and Instagram, Weiwei famously took a selfie called “Illuminations” (2014) while being arrested by the Chinese police. The selfie is thus imbued with a political dimension: it is a kind of defense, an attempt at self-documentation that not only underlines Weiwei’s pacifism but also circulates images of arrests and seizures the Chinese government would prefer to hide. (Weiwei also famously took a selfie in 2008 after being hospitalized due to a police beating.)

 

While Warhol emulated mass production, communicating his artistic vision through prints, photographs, and philosophical treatises, Weiwei’s approach has been to adopt and integrate various communication technologies into his work. From photography, which he took up in the 1980s, Weiwei moved to publishing, then on to curating in the 1990s, before finally moving into blogging in the 2000s — a practice that has compounded his notoriety in China, infamous for its policing and control of online activity. Most recently, social media has been the platform of choice, in which Weiwei has used his selfies — many of which appear in the exhibition — as templates to interrogate his national and political identity in ways that have reached a wide audience. (Weiwei has over 300,000 followers on Twitter, 200,000 on Instagram.) Max Delany, NGV’s senior curator of contemporary art, says that Weiwei is an “artist who engages with media and communications […,] radically transforming the idea of the studio and artistic production […] [and] redefining the role of the ‘artist’ […] as a brand.”

Weiwei’s work brilliantly exploits our age of instant upload and our obsession with celebrity, more extreme than during Warhol’s heyday since our ability to access, follow, and communicate with celebrities has reached a kind of zenith. This is most apparent in AW/AW in the commissioned Lego portraits of well-known Australian activists. Weiwei paradoxically politicizes and commercializes these public figures, showing us the ubiquity of celebrity in our culture while also interrogating the very status and function of fame today. Looking at the portraits of these well-known Australians, all of them begin to look more like Warholesque silkscreen celebrities than actual politicians.

Both Warhol and Weiwei are significant in the way they have challenged and transformed how many of us understand the process of artistic production and the role of the studio. Warhol used his famous “Factory” in Midtown Manhattan less as an artist’s workspace and more as a meeting spot for New York’s intellectuals, bohemians, drag queens, movie stars, and socialites, a hub of camp hedonism and carnivalesque excess, decked out in aluminum foil and silver paint. Weiwei, similarly, has created his own unconventional studio, recruiting a team of researchers and craftspeople, designers and activists, social media experts and archivists, and adopting an interdisciplinary, tech-savvy approach to the creation and circulation of his work. Built in 1999, Weiwei’s studio became the headquarters of his architectural business, now known as “FAKE.”

Given China’s standing as one of the world’s leading superpowers, Weiwei is not shy about interrogating its image in the Western psyche. Weiwei’s enormous installation piece “Forever Bicycles” (2011), in which 1,500 bicycles are stacked to a nine-meter height, is set in the center of the NGV’s foyer. The work is similar to other large-scale pieces by Weiwei, including “Sunflower Seeds” (2011), made up of a hundred million hand-crafted porcelain seeds, which was displayed at Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in London. Both of these huge pieces have been recreated in Melbourne, but Weiwei has added “Blossom,” a delicate bed of thousands of porcelain flowers — a gorgeous response to Warhol’s floral silkscreen prints. Where Warhol was commenting on the mass production and circulation of American cultural forms, Weiwei’s art indexes the “Chinese miracle,” with many of these porcelain flowers marked “Made in China.” If Warhol was the artistic prophet of midcentury American mass production and consumption, so Weiwei is a prime artistic commentator on China’s contemporary identity — at least in the eyes of the West — as a mass exporter of consumer goods.

 

Warhol famously said “I like boring things” — a dictum that is apparent throughout most of Weiwei’s work in AW|AW. With his videos “The Second Ring” and “The Third Ring,” both from 2003, Weiwei used a camera to spotlight Beijing’s sprawling highways and freeways, capturing the changing topography of the enormous metropolis through static framing of traffic flows. The video, like one of Warhol’s endless films (such as 1964’s Empire, which focused a camera of the Empire State Building for eight solid hours), is one of the dullest works in the entire exhibition of more than 300 pieces. But this is Weiwei’s goal, as it was Warhol’s: to use art to invigorate the banal, to make the everyday interesting, and to ironize the notion that the ordinary is an insignificant topic for artists to interrogate.

The marriage between Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei thus proves inherently political. The pairing between the two artists offers a probing alternative reading of Warhol’s work, with Weiwei’s overtly political adaptations of Warhol’s themes and techniques questioning much of the existing discourse on Warhol, whose status as a pop icon has tended to overshadow the political valences of his work. One of the most fascinating items in the exhibition is a small book called Weiwei-isms (2012), a collection of aphorisms and quotes from Weiwei on life, art, and politics. Much like Warhol’s 1977 book The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again), which featured the artist’s sprawling essays on sex, celebrity, and America, Weiwei-isms is a contemporary spoof of Mao’s Little Red Book with parallels to Warhol’s collection. On the back of the small volume is a gnomic, Warholesque epigram: “Everything is art. Everything is politics.” — which would make an appropriate slogan for this exciting exhibition.

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Nathan Smith is an arts and culture writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, New Republic, and The Daily Beast.