Ai Weiwei is one of China’s most fluid and productive creative thinkers. Always slightly ahead of the avant-garde trajectory, as a young artist he participated in the radical Stars exhibition of 1979, and he produced some of the first publicly exhibited subversive paintings of Mao Zedong (1985). During a lengthy sojourn in the United States (1981-1993), exposure to the works of such artists as Marcel Duchamp, Jasper Johns, and Andy Warhol catalyzed his rethinking of the form and function of art. Returning to China, he developed a new twist on the ready-made, employing antiquities as a primary material. Also upon his return, he found opportunities to nurture the nascent art scene through underground publications and innovative curatorial activities. Now, in parallel with his art practice, he is extremely active as an architect and urban planner, including consulting on Herzog & de Meuron’s Beijing Olympic Stadium.
One of the prevailing and perplexing questions of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is “What is art?” Marchel Duchamp brought it to the fore when he signed a urinal and exhibited it as Fountain (1917). Reposing the question, Andy Warhol appropriated the forms of popularly recognizable commercial items (e.g., Brillo Soap Pads Box, 1964/69), and Jeff Koons developed Warhol’s intervention by presenting banal objects such as vacuum cleaners in glass cases (e.g. New Shelton Wet/Dry Doubledecker, 1981). By privileging found objects—via the minimal mechanism of affixing a signature, or more elaborately through careful reproduction or sophisticated display—these artists converted non-art objects into art. While their shock value refocuses attention on the original question—“What is art?”—the answer develops only slowly, and repeatedly underscores the transformative role of creative genius.
Ai Weiwei is China’s impresario of the ready-made. His New York period works such as Violin (1985), constructed from a shovel handle joined to the body of a violin, negated the functionality of the object while drawing attention to the form and highlighting broader issues of creativity. Back in Beijing he turned to Chinese vernacular objects (such as Forever brand bicycles and molded coke hives, a popular heating fuel) as well as antiques. In choosing as found objects items already assigned a high cultural value—porcelains, antique furniture, architectural components, stone sculptures, and so forth—he has developed a new way of addressing the fundamental question regarding the nature of art. Han Dynasty Urn with Coca-Cola Logo (1994), a two thousand year old pot upon which he emblazoned a red Coca-Cola logo, was one of his first ventures of this kind. Subsequent works including Breaking of Two Blue-and-White “Dragon” Bowls (1996) were more violently iconoclastic, equating the act of destruction with that of creation: when his hammer made contact, the status of the bowls changed from collectible porcelains to conceptual work of art. Destruction of hallowed paradigms is a prerogative of contemporary art. The violence inherent in such a creative mode is dramatically conveyed by Ai Weiwei’s physical destruction of culturally revered artifacts, which conjures a much more visceral reaction than mere intellectual destruction of vaunted creative models.
Transformation of historical artifact into conceptual work of art also begs the question of who qualifies as artist. A porcelain bowl may be highly collectible, but it is an authorless object, generally not considered a work of art. What of a Neolithic pot? Neolithic pots display some of the earliest expressive use of the brush in Chinese art history, the largely abstract painted designs harmonizing with the sophisticated forms of the pots. These ceramics fall under the rubric of Painted Pottery, a term translated from the Chinese.
Ai Weiwei created an installation of late Stone Age clay pots, some of which he painted white, as in Whitewash (1995-2000). For the installation Painted Pots (2006) he has painted them all with, as he describes it, “Warhol” colors. The colors fairly scream “contemporary”: even without the Warhol association, they are previously unattainable colors, products of modern industry (Japanese latex house paints). Like a contemporary glaze, they provide a thin skin covering the readily recognizable ceramic forms produced at such Neolithic sites as Banshan, Majiayao, and Machang from northwest China, and by the Hongshan culture of the northeast, from around 5000 to 3500 B.C.
As Ai Weiwei says, “The ‘colored pots’ are never colored. They have a long history, and there are so many of these pots. Always they are shown in the context of antiquity, and with great respect. But they can never get into the contemporary art museums, and contemporary art museums’ exhibition conditions are much better than the conditions for exhibiting antiquities.” Because of his work, they are now eligible for display in prestigious contemporary art venues. Thus he considers that in creating this work, “Even disrespect itself is respect.”
I asked the artist, “In creating this piece, you have covered up the work of artists living many thousands of years ago. Do you ever think about the possibility that in the future an artist may do the same with your work?” Ai Weiwei replied, “It would be nice. Time will always cover up art—the meaning, too. The people who made those pots enjoyed the moment and enjoyed what they made. I think they would not have thought of themselves as artists, but what they did was almost a religious act, giving shape to mystery.”
Interview with Ai Weiwei, July 14, 2006
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