24 Works of Modern Art That Shook the World

Challenging Tradition Through Material: Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei is a Chinese artist and political activist who has become an extremely influential name in todays world of contemporary art. What makes Ai’s work so important and controversial is how he chooses to re-imagine typical use of material to emphasize the kind of value and context they carry; making the audience re-imagine their traditional perceptions of the world around them.

Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, by Ai Weiwei (1995) is a series of three photographs in which the artist himself stands in front of a camera and drops an ancient Chinese urn. This piece is extremely important to understanding Ai Weiwei as an artist because of how it encapsulates the various ways he manipulates material to challenge social and political beliefs. The three photographs are displayed side by side to be presented as three frames. There are three individual moments presented from when he is hold the vase to the moment it touches the floor. The images are printed at a very large size which increases the confrontation the viewer has with the process of the destruction of the sacred object. Ai Weiwei stands in these photos with his full body pictured and a completely straight and static facial expression. He is not wearing any ceremonious or formal attire. It’s him and the vase in their most natural state. There is no glorification or romanticization of the urn in this piece. The lack of color in the three frames enhances this effect as to not give this destruction any extra attention. The dropping of the vase takes place outside his mothers home, but this isn’t visible or acknowledged as the background looks like an unimportant alleyway. The entire context and environment of the event is to purposefully downgrade the inherit and irrational value of the urn. Weiwei choose the material of the urn because of how much value is applied to historical object. This pieces discussion between criticism and tradition would change completely if he had created a new, fresh urn himself. Deconstructing the value of the ready-made historical object is in keeping with Ai’s controversial approach to art and continuous battle challenging Chinese political systems.
Ai’s battle with criticizing the Chinese government is what he bases the majority of his works off of. He lived during a time where the Chinese Communist Party was still enforcing their ideals onto the society and even after the country was turned into a Republic, the Chinese citizens still had to grow out of the ideals and beliefs of the Communist era. His art functions between the two realms of liberal values and Maoist beliefs. China’s Last Communist : Ai Weiwei is a journal that was published in 2014, in which this “idealist contrast” in his art is examined. The author expresses how “Maoist expressions are hidden in plain sight” in his art. Ai uses references to old communist China in an ironic manner to criticize their current governing party. [1]

Ai Weiwei has taken the most crucial values of the Communist parties, and used those beliefs to criticize the social and political climate that surrounds him. A majority of Ai’s work is rooted in the Marxist beliefs that were instilled by General Mao because those were the ideas of the Cultural Revolution that surrounded him growing up. The most essential idea that is continuously referred to throughout his work and statements is Ai’s desire for criticism and self-criticism. In a direct quote from Ai Weiwei he states, “I was born in a society that emphasized critique, bestowing on self- criticism the highest value. Chairman Mao instructed us to carry out criticism and self-criticism.” The effect of re-applying beliefs of the Cultural Revolution to modern day events amplifies his criticism because when those older policies are no longer an appropriate lens to apply onto modern cultural beliefs and lifestyles. By doing this he enhances the “outdated-ness” of communist beliefs, making his criticism easier to understand as a modern citizen. His goal is to call out the defects in the overruling party which interestingly enough he does through mirroring the kind of defects that occurred in Communist China. [2]

The piece, Dropping Han Dynasty Urn, was created in 1995 when Ai had just moved back to Beijing after living in New York City for the past decade. Having spent a lot of time trying to find ways to contribute to the western art world, Ai explained in an interview that his experience in New York City felt exhausting because his art felt out of place within that artistic environment. Writing about Ai’s work in the 1990’s, Stephanie H. Tung described that during that era in New York City most non-western artists couldn't “absorb an openness toward everyday material and process” the way that most Americans could. Considering how much of of his work is based off of material and social context, Ai simply had a vision that was not going to communicate successfully in that environment so he moved back to Beijing. Ai exists between those two worlds - one of pleasing and adhering to the expectations of western art and audiences, and the other more focused on a direct narrative with him and his Chinese community. This means that Ai is able to pull from references and experiences from these two worlds to make a consistent thread throughout his work. In his public blogs in an entry made in 2006, he explains how he feels finally able to make contemporary art in China because now his audience has become more welcoming to “western material culture and lifestyle.” [3] Those overlaps within his audience influence the way they will be receptive to his work. When Ai first returned to Beijing, he spent a lot of his time directing his attention to solely the Chinese art community. The interactions between western art and China would come into play as his work developed through the years. 

Upon his return, in the middle of the 1990's he began to work on a project that was soon to become a series called the Black Cover Book (1997). The purpose of this piece was to "provide an opportunity for Chinese modern artists to publish explain, and exchange their experimental art." This book put a spotlight on Chinese artists and their contexts and as a result, audiences can have more ways to connect and understand their work through this book as well. This is important because China in the 1990’s was just growing out of the Tian’men Square crackdown which led artists to feel hesitant in expressing themselves in art because of the 85’ New Wave Movement. A protest had taken place in this square that was traditionally seen as a very sacred environment in which students created a demonstration calling for free-speech, free-press, and democratic reform. The leading communist party instead retaliated with massacre, arresting almost 10,000 students. The event caused such personal harm to China that the United States Congress “voted to impose economic sanctions against China, citing human rights violations.” [5] Needless to say, Ai was returning to a very tense social climate. His work spoke for the voices of the oppressed who continuously worked to fight the overruling communist ideals in the state and government. This is what makes his work so important and significant to his audience in China. It’s almost impossible for someone that comes from a western background to see his work still surrounded by more western artists and fully understand the emotional intensity and significance. Moving back to China made his art more powerful because the audience could actually experience the ideas being communicated.

His art challenges traditional beliefs through destruction. Before creating the piece, little by little Ai integrated means of destruction into his work. Prior to releasing Dropping Han Dynasty Urn, Ai created Han Dynasty Urn with a Coca Cola Logo and Tang Dynasty Courteasean in a Bottle. These pieces play off the idea of manipulating readymades - similar to his first works in NYC - an exhibition called OLD Shows, Safe Sex. In this exhibition his manipulation was not direct, but rather he was inspired by Duchamp with the intention to refer to “puritanical repression” being encouraged in China at that time, by challenging it. [6] In this exhibition there are photos of the artist standing completely exposed, or just making a silhouette out of a wire hanger and sunflower seeds. In his later works, these kinds of suggestive and controversial works were taken further when he began applying these techniques to old antiques that hold significant historical and materialistic value. Ai stated that in his creations he “need not create anything new or original, but simply prick, pinch, or nudge that one brick so he or she can change the original structure.” [7] Dropping Han Dynasty Urn is considered to be a continuation of this work where every time he takes things just a little further, pushing the boundaries more and more. The whole development of his works at this time was rooted in exploring the idea of “cultural history and aesthetic values in modern china.” [8] Not using destruction with the intention be antagonistic but rather make mirror and document the violent relationship between politics and art in China, whether it be past or present. Destroying items of value is not his mere use of material but rather entirely symbolic of that battle he fights against tradition, China, and the government system as well. Ai teeters between Western art and traditional Chinese craftsmanship. He uses techniques passed down through generations which demonstrate his intention to create a “direct expression.” He reimagines tradition by demonstrating the value of object and form while also deconstructing it completely. The text claims that his works tends to go through a process where he “deconstructs tradition, estranges or defamiliarizes it, reinterprets it, and finally, reassembles it.” [9]

Often times his audience uses destruction to respond to his work, the levels of which depend on what is being communicated to Ai. For instance, in 2018, the Chinese government destroyed and took down his art studio without warning. Their action justified by an expired rental contract, though still did not give him the chance to save his work. [10] In 2014, his audiences took a more personal approach to destroying his work when a Miami artist/protester entered his exhibition of Coloured Vases, 2006 and picked up one vase up to then drop it on the floor. This protester used Ai’s mean of creation, imitating the dropping of the urn of the Han dynasty, to mock and bring up considerations about Ai’s authority and right to destroy culture for the sake of making a statement. Ai’s work is controversial.

What’s interesting about the event is how the media seemed to be more affected by this destruction than Ai himself. While articles and reports are being created about what happened, Ai simply stated that “My work belongs to me, it doesn't belong to the public and also it doesn't [belong to] somebody else.” [11] He claimed that though there is validity to the protesters beliefs, the means to go about communicating his point do not seem to be genuine. Ai’s work functions to be controversial but it is rooted in a place that is genuinely trying to challenge and refocus art and materialistic value. He uses the vase an an example of irrational beliefs so his audience can take his idea and expand it to other aspects of their lifestyle. In the same comment with CNN, Ai said that his work was “basically forbidden” in China, he can’t even fully reach his intended audience. When the protestor comes from western background and destroys his private property, it goes to show that maybe the artist didn’t understand the piece sufficiently to appropriately challenge it. This is a reason that Ai’s work is controversial but still tasteful. His destruction has a very obvious purpose, he uses it within specific contexts to send a very unique message. He does not find a message to justify destroying material but rather uses the destruction strategically to enhance his message appropriately.

As Jenner Walden comments, in traditionally political settings destroying an object can function to comment on the priorities of a community or the unspoken rules a community shares to give some objects more power over others. We find this approach to art very common nowadays where modern societies are basically characterized by the destruction of tradition.[12] Ai knows that when breaking rules and challenges boundaries of tradition that are often untouched, outrage and protest is to be expected. To destroy an object as a statement with the intention to trigger emotion or erase the legacy of a memory - destruction serves to stun it’s spectator. In Ai Weiwei’s work, he often uses destruction to reveal and challenge the implicit values that are held within object and tradition.

Ai’s success can be defined by how he can continuously make a statement with every piece that he creates. His works are always following a similar theme or approach and the end objective will always be to challenge the audience in one way or another. What’s impressive is the endless ways he’s has managed to reach this objective. He has an extremely strategic use of material that makes it so easy for his audience to understand his message. I often find that in art, a message can be so abstract and deconstructed that the audience gets lost. An artist can try to challenge a viewers beliefs to such an extent that the origin of the piece is lost. In Ai’s work, it’s almost impossible to feel like you aren’t smart enough to understand the piece. Ai guides you through a thought process, one that becomes more and more complex the more you learn about the piece and its history. Nevertheless, its still extremely accessible and can be understood on an endless amount of levels. This is how he has become such an important name in the art that's being created nowadays. Though he has been criticized for having a big ego, this doesn’t change how his art can be understood. It is directed to a specific type of audience but this does not limit the amount of people that can be receptive to his work. It encourages personal interpretations that when shared you end up learning more about your own traditional values and others as well.

Ai, Weiwei, and Hans Ulrich Obrist. Ai Weiwei Speaks. Penguin Books, 2016.

AMBROZY, LEE, editor. “Chinese Contemporary Art in Dilemma and Transition: POSTED ON FEBRUARY 4, 2006.” Ai Weiwei's Blog: Writings, Interviews, and Digital Rants, 2006-2009, by ERIC ABRAHAMSEN and AI WEIWEI, MIT Press, 2011, pp. 14–18. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt5hhg38.9.

Becker, Tania. “So Sorry––Never Sorry. Ai Weiwei’s Art between Tradition and Modernity.” Asian Studies, no. 1, 2011, pp. 113–126., doi:10.4312/as.2011.-15.1.113-126.

“Changing Perspective: Ai Weiwei with Charles Merewether,” in Ai Weiwei: Works, Beijing 1993–2003, ed. Charles Merewether (Hong Kong: Timezone 8, 2003), p. 28

Lu, Xing. Rhetoric of the Chinese Cultural Revolution: the Impact on Chinese Thought, Culture, and Communication. University of South Carolina Press, 2004.

McKirdy, Euan. “$1 Million Ai Weiwei Vase Destroyed in Miami as Artist Protests.” CNN, Cable News Network, 19 Feb. 2014, www.cnn.com/2014/02/18/world/aiweiwei-vase-destroyed/index.html.

Monti, Lia. "Beyond the ‘Fake Smile’-Ai Weiwei’s vision for individual rights in China.”, http://www.dukenex.us/beyond-the-fake-smile---ai-weiweis-visionfor- individual-rights-in-china.html

Pellett, and Gail. “'Ai Weiwei: New York 1983 – 1993'. Beijing: Three Shadows Press; New York: Chambers Fine Art, 2010. Exhibition: Asia Society, New York, June 29 – August 14, 2011.” The Trans-Asia Photography Review, Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, quod.lib.umich.edu/t/tap/7977573.0002.111/--aiweiwei-new-york-1983-1993-beijing-three-shadows-press-new?rgn=main%3Bview.

Rea, Naomi.'Farewell': Ai Weiwei's Beijing Studio Is Demolished by Chinese Authorities Without Warning. Artnet News, 6 Aug. 2018, news.artnet.com/art-world/ai-weiwei-studiodemolished-1329026.

Sorace, Christian. “China's Last Communist: Ai Weiwei.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 40, no. 2, 2014, pp. 396–419., doi:10.1086/674120.!13

Tung, Stephanie. "Black, White, and Grey: Ai Weiwei in Beijing, 1993-1997." Yishu: A Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art 16.6 (2017): 55-64.

Walden, Jennifer L. Art and Destruction. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013.

Wardęga, Joanna. “Politics and Religion in Contemporary China.” Mao Zedong In Present-Day China – Forms of Deification , vol. 6, no. 2, 10 Jan. 2017, doi:1820 - 6581.

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