Ai Weiwei: Dropping the Urn

Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995). Middle view of a triptych of gelatin silver prints, each print 49 5/8” x 39 1/4”. Courtesy private collection, USA.

Ai Weiwei is without a doubt one of the most intelligent makers negotiating the art/craft divide.  Ai Weiwei: Dropping the Urn at the Museum of Contemporary Craft in Portland, Oregon is his first museum exhibition on the west coast, and a fitting venue for an international contemporary artist engaged in a deep dialog with Chinese culture, art history, ceramics and craft.  The exhibition addresses ceramic tradition but is satisfying on visceral and theoretical levels as contemporary art.

(Making of) Colored Vases (2006). Single channel video, 13 minutes, 09 seconds. Courtesy Ai Weiwei, Beijing.

Colored Vases (2006) Vases from the Neolithic age (5000 - 3000 BCE) and industrial paint; between 10” x diameter 9” and 14 1/2” x diameter 9 1/2”. Courtesy AW Asia collection, New York.

The best works in the exhibition are those in which Ai takes archaic Chinese vessels and treats them as readymades.  These include paint-dipped pots, pulverized urns in a jar, a pot with a superimposed Coca Cola logo, and a photograph of the artist casually letting a Han dynasty urn smash on the ground.  Of these works the cheerily-painted Colored Vases (2006) immediately catch the eye.  Ai treats the ancient pots irreverently, dipping them into buckets of industrial paint so as to leave some evidence of the original surface decoration and, thus, their age.  The off-the-shelf colors pop brightly against the original dull brownish tones of the vessels, a gesture of cultural washing that nearly obliterates the past in favor of a brighter new plastic-colored future.  Dust to Dust (2009) follows a similar conceptual path: Ai crushed Neolithic-age pottery to powder and stored the gritty remains in a clear glass jar. Here, the funereal act of memorializing an old urn in a modern urn coupled with the implied violence of the grinding gives the work cerebral and visceral force.

Coca Cola Vase (1997).  Vase from Neolithic Age (5000 – 3000 BCE) and paint, 11 7/8″ x diameter 13″. Courtesy Tsai Collection, New York.

Urns of this vintage are usually cherished for their anthropological importance.  By employing them as readymades, Ai strips them of their aura of preciousness only to reapply it according to a different system of valuation.  However, this is not the well-worn strategy of the readymade famously applied by Duchamp to his urinal Fountain, wherein the object lacked cultural gravitas until placed in an art context.  Instead, Ai’s chosen readymades already have significance.  Working in this manner, Ai transforms precious artifacts—treating them as base and valueless by painting, dropping, grinding, or slapping with a logo—into contemporary fine art.  The substitution of one kind of value for another occurs when he displays the transformed urns in a museum vitrine, reinstilling value but replacing historical significance with a newer cultural one.