arcadia university art gallery  
Ai Weiwei: Dropping the Urn
(Ceramic Works, 5000 BCE - 2010 CE)

February 24 – April 18, 2010

About the Exhibition

Arcadia University Art Gallery is pleased to present “Ai Weiwei: Dropping the Urn (Ceramic Works, 5000 BCE – 2010 CE)”, a solo exhibition of works by Chinese, Beijing-based artist Ai Weiwei (b. 1957). Opening February 24, 2010, the show will run through April 18, 2010 and is scheduled to coincide with the spring 2010 conference of the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA) to be held in Philadelphia (March 31 to April 3). After its presentation at Arcadia, the show will travel to the Museum of Contemporary Craft (Portland, Oregon) where it will open on July 15. Co-curated by gallery director Richard Torchia and Gregg Moore (artist and Associate Professor of Art and Design at Arcadia University), the exhibition is the first solo show by the artist to be presented outside of New York City in the United States.

Featuring a selection of ceramic works and photographs ranging from 1993 to the present, “Ai Weiwei: Dropping the Urn” will offer viewers a focused look at Ai’s iconoclastic appropriations of historic clay pots and porcelain vases. The oldest pieces in the show utilize 7000-year old Neolithic urns dating from 5000 BCE*. The aura of these and other artifacts helps to define a body of work distinguished by its paradoxical investment in the Chinese ceramic vessel, a legacy whose values and significations it both questions and transcends. Ai’s focused exploration of earthenware and porcelain, begun when the artist returned to Beijing in 1993 after a decade in New York City, is critical to understanding a radical practice that has evolved to incorporate sculpture, installation, photography, video, performance, and architecture as well as curating and activism.

“Ai Weiwei: Dropping the Urn” will include examples of Ai’s unprecedented use of Neolithic and Han dynasty vessels as “readymades” that the artist subjects to a variety of procedures. These include marking 2000-year-old clay urns with hand-painted inscriptions of the “Coca-Cola” logo, dipping them into vats of industrial paint, smashing them on the ground in performances for the camera, and grinding the vessels into powder. Writing in the exhibition’s catalog essay about Ai’s “gestural practice” of defacing and destroying of these ancient objects to transform them into works of contemporary art, Beijing-based critic Philip Tinari remarks that these works provide “the illusion of clarity alongside the persistent specter of ambiguity.” What appears at first “like the sublimation of an ancient object’s financial value and cultural worth into a different yet parallel carrier of updated value and worth” also serves as a “satire of the ruling regime’s approach to its patrimony, and of contemporary China’s curious relation to its past, a situation where destruction of historical artifacts happens almost daily.”

The exhibition will also showcase replicas appropriating Qing dynasty (18th-century) porcelain commissioned by the artist from craftsmen in the town of Jingdezhen, where porcelain has been produced for the past 1700 years. Ai’s contemporary versions of these “blue and white” flasks and jars are impossible to distinguish from the priceless originals without the aid of carbon dating, if even then, as counterfeiters often mix in flecks of old clay to foil investigators. As such, these and other “fake” works in the exhibition stand as material interrogations of authenticity and the ways in which value is constructed and perceived. Other, more recent works in the exhibition, such as a pair of spherical “watermelons”, mimic the traditional tromp-l’oeil strategy of producing glazed teapots and vases that replicate natural forms. Like many of the other works in the exhibition, they play with notions of the vessel as container vs. that which is contained while prompting questions that can broach issues of labor, class, and power. The largest piece in the exhibition, for example, appears to be a conical pile sunflower seeds, a common street snack in China. Each “seed” however, is painstakingly handcrafted from porcelain. Weighing precisely one ton, the mound’s resemblance to minimalist sculpture and the free takeaways of Felix-Gonzales Torres is contradicted by its profligate expenditure of manual effort as well as a reference to a line of communist propaganda suggesting that the Chinese people were sunflowers following Mao Zedong. As a group, the selected examples show Ai working through the dynastic progression of Chinese ceramics to reconcile the formal, material logic and historical, political commentary that give his work its unique mixture of gravity and wit.

Ai Weiwei: Dropping the Urn

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