Ai Weiwei and The Art of Destruction

ai-weiwei-installation-012The 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.artwork_images_93_621026_-aiweiweiAnother 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.ai weiweiPots 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.

http://artasiapacific.com/Magazine/70/AiWeiweiDroppingTheUrnCeramicWorks5000BCE2010CE

http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2014/feb/18/ai-weiwei-han-urn-smash-miami-art

Gansu Jars of Neolithic China

Neolithic culture is a period that begins worldwide about 8000 bce and is defined by humanities move from hunter-gather culture to settled agriculture centered around small villages.  Important innovations and technology of the time were stone tools and the regular manufacture and use of pottery.  It is in fact through pots and fired ceramic objects that we have learned about many of these early cultures, because the ceramic is able to survive the decay of long years in a way that other crafts that were practiced by these early ancestors cannot.Neolithic chinaThis illustration is a recreation of a neolithic community in Jiangzhai Village, Lintong China.  The image was taken from this website below, where a discussion of the layout and functions of the buildings is discussed.  Most interesting to this article is the area near the river, which was the locations of the potteries and kilns.  This would have been a very important industry for the village and so was located within the walls of the town.

http://hua.umf.maine.edu/China/Xian/Shaanxi_History/pages/031_History_Museum.html

The area of this site, while outside of the Gansu province was from the neighboring province of Shaanxi and was a part of the Yangshoo culture which give us the Gansu Jars.Neolithic2 jarThis jar was found in the Jiangzhai Village and has many of the distinctive characteristics of the Banshan Yangshoo or Gansu Jars.  Bulbous shape, small handles and free flowing dynamic brushwork are all characteristics of this work.  In addition, these pots were light and well made, which is one of the reasons for the large number of these that have survived the many years since their creation (from the 4th to the 3rd millennium BCE)  These were thought to have been built quickly with an eye for function.  The majority of those that survive were used as burial jars.gansu 3These beautiful forms were made by coiling and then paddling to refine the form, they were then scraped and burnished and painted with colored slips and fired in small updraft kilns.

“The forms of Chinese are are…in the widest and deepest sense harmonious…we can appreciate them because we too feel their rhythms all around us in nature, and instinctively respond to them”     -Michael Sullivan 1967gansu 1I dont dispute this quote, but I would go further, in that all art springs from that which came before, either in celebration or protest.  Chinese culture is rare in that it traces its beginning, unbroken, to the Neolothic.  There are many villages in China that still employ techniques for making pottery that were used during this early period and many of the forms produced clearly owe their origins to this formative period.  Not only are these forms still relevant in China, but the pottery of China has been traded and treasured all over the world since the opening of the silk road.  We respond to these forms and these designs because they are fundamental to the culture of the entire world, nearly every artistic tradition owes a debt to the pioneering potteries of Neolithic China.

Sources:

Speight, Charlotte F., and John Toki. Hands in Clay. 5th ed. Mountain View, Calif.: Mayfield, 2004. Print.

Wood, Nigel. Chinese Glazes: Their Origins, Chemistry, and Recreation. London: & C Black ;, 1999. Print.

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angzhai Village, Lintong