"Ai Weiwei: Dropping the Urn, Ceramic Works 5000 B.C.-A.D. 2010"

By Davies, Christie | New Criterion, February 2012 | Go to article overview

"Ai Weiwei: Dropping the Urn, Ceramic Works 5000 B.C.-A.D. 2010"


Davies, Christie, New Criterion


"Ai Weiwei: Dropping the Urn, Ceramic Works 5000 B.C.-A.D. 2010" Victoria & Albert Museum, London. October 16, 2011-March 18, 2012

"The Flamboyant Mr. Chinnery: An English Artist in India and China" Asia House, London. November 4, 2011-January 21, 2012

"Ai Weiwei: Dropping the Urn" at the Victoria and Albeit Museum and "The Flamboyant Mr. Chinnery" at Asia House offer, in quite, different ways, interesting insights into the interplay between Chinese and Western Art.

At the center of the exhibition "Dropping the Urn," is a triple-framed photo of the Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei first holding, then dropping, then standing by the shattered shards of a Han Dynasty (266 B.C.-A.D. 220) urn. A valuable historic artifact has become a disposable item in an enactment of modern performance art. The curators of die V&A have thoughtfully placed close at hand a similar, but intact, Eastern Han earthenware jar with a brown lead glaze. The curators have done the same with Ai's Coca-Cola Vase (1997), made by painting a Coca-Cola logo in bright red with gold underlining on a Neolithic vase. Next to it stands a similar but unimproved earth-colored vase with black decoration; both date from 5000-3000 B.C., The branded version has by far die higher value in the marketplace and is also the more attractive of the two. Possibly this is an illusion created by its having suffered a "sea change into something rich and strange." Yet the original vase is still there underneath, and it is questionable whether it was of much interest to anyone other than dusty archaeologists who measure out their lives with ancient pots.

Ai Weiwei would have been pleased with the juxtaposition: he both takes a pride in China's artistic past, within which ceramics are central, yet he maintains, "I hate ceramics." He sees himself as creatot, preserver, and destroyer. His zeal for preservation is shown in Souvenir from Beijing (2002), a wooden box containing a brick rescued from the state-sanctioned destruction of one of Beijing's attractive traditional courtyards to make way for some vulgar new development. The brick is his protest. Those Americans and British who regularly connive at similar acts of vandalism are not really in any position to criticize die great Chinese pot-smasher. Yet there remains something shocking and pointless about Ai's Dust to Dust (2009), a glass jar containing the remains of a Neolithic pottery vessel ground into dust, and thus returned to its original state, with all human fashioning removed. It is no doubt a metaphor for the inevitability of death-indeed the one used in our burial service-but it is also a worrying reminder of the deliberate destruction of the tablets of the ancestors during the Cultural Revolution.

On the other side of the V&A's labyrinth of corridors and elevators is a display relating to die Porcelain City, Jingdezhen, the city that inspired Ai and is the source of his notorious piles of porcelain sunflower seeds. For centuries this city was the most important place in the world for porcelain based on its local kaolin. In the display are works by four ceramicists who have stayed there and been inspired by its traditions: Ah Hian, a Chinese emigre; Felicity Aylieff from England; Roger Law, an Australian; and Takeshi Yasuda from Japan, who, after a long stay in the United Kingdom, has become director of the Pottery Workshop in Jingdezhen. Aylieff, Law, and Yasuda have all provided examples of their own recent work in the Chinese tradition, but their ceramics differ gready and in each case have been shaped by the national origin of their creator. Law's works are exu berandy covered in Australian sea creatures. Big fish boldly project from his Saltwater Pot (2003) which is sea-green with a brown tinge. Inside it is a very plain white with a tiny, almost invisible butterfly-Australian on the outside and Chinese within. Law's Saltwater Vase (2008) is a pale traditional green on which he has placed a mass of crab, lobster, jellyfish, squid, big carnivorous fish, and shoals of minnows. …

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