A courageous act of cultural rewriting, Ai Weiwei’s Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (Lot 1067) is arguably the most renowned example from the artist’s iconoclastic phase of the mid-1990s after he went back to China from USA. The works has been exhibited numerous times and has recently been featured in his widely acclaimed retrospective at London’s Royal Academy. The action imposed upon the antique Han pot represents the destruction of conventional or established values, creating a work that is in turn both iconoclastic and regenerative, while also recognising that the significance of a cultural object is always subject to change. A constant in the artist’s diverse practice is his unrelenting scrutiny of structures of power and advocacy of independent thought, stimulating powerful dialogues regarding the relationship between history and value. Synonymous with stability, prosperity, and cultural ascendancy, the Han Dynasty period occupies a significant position in China’s national consciousness. The historical density surrounding Ai’s act is juxtaposed with the artist’s confrontational and unapologetic blank stare, resulting in a gesture that not only unsettles the status quo, but also subverts instituted notions of culture and the role and form of art in contemporary society.
The works of Ai Weiwei are related to themes of China. These themes appeared in his work once he returned to China in 1993. He spent twelve years away from his motherland, but on his return felt disappointment at the changes he had witnessed. It felt as if his connection had been severed in the eighties, and this amplified his feelings of repression. Therefore, his questions seem like a counter-current to China's economic and social development. These questions began to manifest in his work, making him a highly influential artist. As "China" was at the core of all of his works, his creations naturally entered a completely new phase. For his creative approaches, he used misappropriation which he had learned from his time in New York, readymade objects, assemblage, and other modern approaches. Yet, with regards to the element of time, many of the materials he uses to create works are in fact antique Chinese objects. In one of his earlier works, he emblazoned the Coca-Cola trademark onto a Han Dynasty urn: Coca-Cola Vase (1994) and broke a Han Dynasty urn for his photographical work: Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995), and in 1997 Ai Weiwei started a series of work made from antique furniture, which has become one of his best known creations. It is also worth mentioning that the works of this series have no serial numbers, as they were all created from unique antique furniture or wood, making each work a completely unique piece. Map of China can be considered the greatest achievement of the furniture series, and has gone on to influence a later series of large scale installations.
Ai Weiwei isn't just the most controversial artist of China today, he is also an architect, a curator, a blogger. He has worked on over fifty architectural works in China, and this includes collaborating with the Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron to create the Bird's Nest. Ai Weiwei had spent twelve years in the United States, and had become influenced by the work of masters of modern western art such as Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, and began using the creative devices of subversion, misappropriation, readymade objects, juxtaposition, and irony. His work has since been made to correspond with the current social and political realities of China; it raises powerful questions, and hopes to bring about change. From this perspective it can be said that Ai Weiwei has been a mirror for China over these past few decades of rapid change. Since returning to China, Ai Weiwei has always been marginalised, and has even been highly criticised. However, he alone has been invited to hold numerous exhibitions at various international art galleries, including the Tate Modern of London, where he held a personal exhibition of his Sunflower Seeds in the large Turbine Hall. He returned to America for his Ai Weiwei: According to What? exhibition. He also exhibited his early work at the Documenta art show of Kassel, Germany. In the exhibition essay of According to What? Mami Kataoka, Chief Curator of the Mori Art Museum, concluded that: "He hopes that we do not watch China from a distance, through a lens of 'otherness', but rather to observe it from the same perspective as the Chinese people themselves. He hopes to find universal values that will link China and the rest of the world at a basic level".1
Ai Weiwei was a member of an avant garde art group called "Stars", which was founded after the Cultural Revolution. During this period he attended the Beijing Film Academy with a group of other young artists of the time. In the years of 1979 and 1980 he organised the Stars Exhibition two times. The early paintings of Ai Weiwei featured techniques similar to those of the western Impressionists, with traces of Monet's influence, and were quite far removed from the Socialist Realism art of the official system. As with the other "Stars" artists in their first exhibition, he used the slogan: "Understand the world with our own eyes, and connect with the world with our own brushes and sculpting tools". At that time, the beliefs of Ai Weiwei lead him to pursue the expression of individual freedom. In fact, this can traced back from his personal experiences of the Cultural Revolution. His father was the famous Chinese poet, Ai Qing. He was an important member of the League of Left Wing Writers, but was labelled a rightist during the Cultural Revolution. In 1967 Ai Weiwei and his entire family were sent off to Xingjiang. Besides being forbidden to continue his work as a writer, Ai's father was also made to clean toilets for many years. It was this event that became the critical point which drove Ai Weiwei to pursuit personal independence and freedom.
Both times the Stars Exhibition received a lot of feedback, but none of it was officially recognised. As one of the organisers, Ai Weiwei felt the need to leave China, he said: "A place with no personal space, is a personal space for the individual psyche". He felt suffocated by the social climate of China, and so moved to the United States in 1981. In the following year he enrolled in Parsons School of Design, New York. This is how he was introduced to his teacher Sean Scully. He began to learn about Dadaism, Surrealism, and many western artists such as Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, and Marcel Duchamp. Although he left the college later on, it made a huge impact upon his later work. Up until his return to China in 1993, the work he created during his twelve years in the United States was primarily influenced by Dadaism and Pop Art. This includes Hanging Man (1985), Safe Sex (1986), One Man Shoe (1987), and Violin (1987). These creations were made from readymade objects, and possessed a simple but direct energy. Interestingly, the reassembled and changed objects he created in New York did not seem related to any Chinese themes. It seems apparent that Ai Weiwei did not plan to use his own nationality as a means to establish himself in New York.
Using symbolically rich Chinese objects, whether readymades or antiques, the artist adopts critical perspectives on cultural authority that address the different kinds of significance that objects accrue – be they cultural, historical, or monetary – to create a dialogue wherein these issues are not only animated but problematised. By bringing the techniques of Dadaism into contact with Chinese history and culture, Ai raises important questions regarding the notions of authenticity and value in art; the value of Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn has today exceeded that of the once-prized urn itself, initiating a cycle of creative destruction many consider necessary for any culture’s survival and evolution. Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn is thus a work that has been made to correspond with the current socio-political realities of China, raising powerful questions and building hope to bring about change through a painstakingly deliberate close-up of the split seconds required to permanently destroy an artefact that had survived for over 2000 years.
1 Mami Kataoka, 'According to What? – A Questioning Attitude', Ai Weiwei - According to What, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Mori Art Museum and Del Monico Books Prestel, 2012, p. 10
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