The pottery of Neolithic and Bronze era China have inspired many artists over the centuries since it was first created, but none to such a controversial degree as the work of Ai Weiwei. Ai Weiwei is a Chinese artist who has risen to the apex of the international art scene with his thought-provoking social commentaries. The majority of these are protests aimed at the communist government of China. The artists work in ceramic is no exception.
The bones of the work are historical vessels from the early history of China, including Gansu Jars and pieces from the Han period. These objects are then changed, and sometimes destroyed to make Ai’s controversial work. The photo above shows two of the works. The first, the photographs, are a piece titled Dropping A Han Dynasty Urn and are exactly as the title and photo indicate, The artist is seen in three frames dropping an urn from the Han dynasty period, a piece that has remained intact since it was made any where from 206 bce to 220 ce. The other vessels depicted are from a piece called Colored Vases and are Chinese jars from various early periods that have been dipped in paint.Another work titled Dust to Dust are the remains of 30 Neolithic vessels that have been ground to dust, and displayed in glass jars in orderly rows.Pots are not the only objects that have been altered from their original state as antiques. These stools are from the Ming Dynasty and represent a large body of works based on altered antique furniture.
Ai sites his greatest influence as Marcel Duchamp, and indeed in these works we see Fountain and Bicycle Wheel reborn in a new context, but rather than a pure examination of art and object, the objects the artist has chosen to alter are loaded with political statement as well as artistic. When challenged regarding the destruction of the furniture, he countered with the official Chinese government position of destroying objects from the Ming and other dynasties.
This leads to the sticky question of the nature of Ai’s works with objects of antiquity. Is this destruction or transformation? First it must be noted that there is a good deal of speculation that the works are convincing fakes. We must acknowledge that the artist loves the concept of the Fake, giving that the name of his architectural firm. It is not unreasonable to consider the entire project an elaborate joke. But for the sake of argument, we must consider that these are the genuine article, irreplaceable objects of tremendous importance for the history of all of humanity. Are they truly destroyed?
In the case of the pieces from Dust to Dust, there can be no doubt that the vessels that fill these jars have been utterly destroyed. The remaining ceramic is contained in its own funerary urn, placed on a beautifully crafted shelves, clean ordered and evenly spaced. Yes the jars are destroyed, but they are still being treated with reverence and respect.
The Han Urn too is destroyed, or at least broken, like most of the works from its time. A skilled restorer could have the piece back to museum quality in a few days, so what truly is lost? certainly the rare quality of having never been broken, which is remarkable and wonderful to me personally as a person in love with art and antiquity, yet what might have been gained from the sacrifice, for that is what I believe these acts constitute.
We consider the great history of China unbroken, yet I believe Ai is pointing to another possibility, that it has been broken, that the current government of China has broken completely with history and humanity. The ritualized sacrifice of treasures has brought a great deal of attention to the artist and so then his cause for the freedom of the people of China. Reading comments to certain blog articles about this work it is clear that many believe that Ai should be imprisoned for this desecration. Actually he is imprisoned, being on house arrest for years because of acts like these. Is it because of the breaking and damage to historical objects? No, it is because the Chinese government sees this artists statements on a global scale as a threat to their continued power. This is what sanctifies the destruction of these objects and why this work is so compelling and thought-provoking.
Last year an artist broke one of the vessels from an exhibition in Miami. He claims to have done it to protest the galleries emphasis on international artists rather than on the local scene. I believe he has missed the importance of the statement made by Ai and used his fame to artificially propel his career, I have no doubt that if the protestor was himself showing internationally he would have no problem with an international gallery, nor would he refuse the opportunity to exhibit abroad in solidarity with local artists.
As for the painted pots, Greek sculpture demonstrates that painted surfaces usually don’t survive time the way that objects can. These pieces belong to history and humanity. This is but a brief moment in their existence. It is possible that the new status conferred to these objects as highly valued pieces of contemporary art will have a protective effect on them, but in any case, The culture of contemporary art and these political and aesthetic concerns will crumble to dust before all of these pots are lost.