Ai Weiwei: Can we learn more from art than history?

Contemporary Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei, is best known for his trickster antics, dedication to social media and controversial subject matter. One of the most thought provoking artworks by the artist, entitled “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn” (1995) made a truly profound impact on the Chinese audience by asking them to question their understanding of history. The urn itself was an ancient Chinese relic dating back to approximately 206 BCE – 9 CE, leading some to believe his destruction of this precious artifact was disrespectful, reckless, and maybe even reason for imprisonment. It is my belief that the artist is aware of the difficulty in starting sensitive conversations within society. He uses shocking and controversial subject matter to communicate meaning and gain publicity through infamy; thereby generating awareness to some parts of Chinese history, which by and large goes unnoticed. 

Ai Weiwei grew up in exile in labour camps in Northeastern and Northwestern China from 1957 until 1976. This was due to the fact that  certain people in power believed that his father, a famous poet, was a threat to the government despite the fact that he was a close confidant to Chairman Mao Zedong. Therefore, he and his aging father were forced to do hard manual labor, live in cramped confinements, and endure severe malnourishment with bouts of starvation. Following the death of Mao, his family was finally able to move back to Beijing and Ai Weiwei began to attend college. He moved to New York City from 1981 until 1993 where he first became exposed to the art of Duchamp, Warhol and Jasper Johns, whom are credited to be his main sources of inspiration. It was then that he also started to use “ready made” materials, which are items that he appropriates for his work. After his father became ill, Ai Wei Wei returned to China where he currently still lives.

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“Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn” is a sequential triptych photograph series in which a man wearing a modest outfit, who is actually the artist himself, drops an urn on concrete. In each of the square-cropped photos he is standing in the same position, the camera is photographing from the same angle and the photos are taken at the same level of exposure. Each photo is 150 x 166 cm and hung individually in a simple black frame. In the first, the artist holds the urn on its side, delicately displaying the artifact on his finger tips. His hands are empty in the second, and the vase is about 3/4ths of the way through falling to the ground: a slight blur shows the movement of the urn through the space. In the last photograph, the artist’s hands are still in the same position while the urn lays shattered on the ground in front of him. Weiwei employed a photographer friend to take the images, though unfortunately during their first attempt, the camera malfunctioned while breaking the original urn. The image we see is actually a second attempt, in which they broke a second urn.

There is some controversy as to whether the urn shown in this image is genuinely a Han Dynasty urn or a contemporary replica. Weiwei has been quoted as saying that the replicas created today use techniques in which it would be virtually impossible to determine its authenticity. Some art critics take this to mean that Weiwei is pointing out how history can be undermined in the contemporary setting. However I think the more important facet of this discussion is how he brings attention to the fact that we often misconstrue the historical importance of ancient relics by over emphasizing their cost, at the sake of their genuine cultural significance.

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Furthermore, the artist is said to have purchased a sizeable collection of ancient urns in the 1990’s in which he has used in multiple art pieces, including “The Coca-Cola Urn” which was created one year prior to the Han Dynasty work. The Coca-Cola Urn has become an icon of contemporary Chinese artwork and an inspiration for other artists in China to use their artwork to send a message. In response to “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn”, the most prominent collector of Chinese art Uli Sigg filmed Swiss artist Manuel Salvisber smashing an urn which he recently acquired at auction in an identical fashion: Ai Weiwei’s Coca-Cola Urn. The collector named his tryptic “Fragments of History” and set an interesting tone to the conversation surrounding the issue of morality in owning art.

I believe the original work is likely referencing William Wegman’s 1971 “Dropping Milk”. The artist may have found inspiration in Wegman’s wit and humor, a recurring characteristic of his artwork. Ai Weiwei was quoted as saying “I’m not brave- I’m trying to be funny.” Which really resonates with my personal experience with the Native American art world where humor plays an enormous role in alleviating some of the pain stemming from historical and current traumas of our own history with the United States government. 

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Ultimately what his artwork tends to do is provoke the average viewer to question their understanding of history, the government and media as well as the relationship between what we are taught, what is left out, and what motivations drive these changes. To Chinese viewers, his artworks directly challenge cultural values which has been met with much resistance but shed light on the relationship of between their history and contemporary society. 

Much love to Ai Weiwei, he’s one of my all time favorite artists. My interpretation and analysis of this artwork is by no means a definitive statement on its meaning. The wonderful thing about art is that it speaks to people in different ways! If you have your own opinions about this artwork or any of the artworks I’ve referenced in this post, be sure to leave me an comment or send me an email! A Google Doc with links to all of my sources (both for information and photos) can be found here. Check out his documentary “Never Sorry” on Netflix!

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