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

February 24 – April 18, 2010

About the Artist and the Work

About the Artist and the Work

Ai Weiwei is a leading representative of contemporary art in China. Contemporary curator Karen Smith, in her essay for the Groninger Museum’s 2007 exhibition of Ai’s clay work, writes:

Ai uses what can be classified as ‘Chinese’ materials and a range of traditional and culturally specific craft practices and techniques but the artworks ‘transcend’ because he doesn’t use these things in a typical ‘Chinese way’ that was the modus operandi of the early avant-garde, and a defining element of the 1990s movements like Political Pop or Gaudy Art—or more commercially driven approaches that have emerged in recent years…He has never had recourse to specifically political motifs in his work, although his work is among the most political-oriented in all contemporary Chinese practice.

Born in Beijing in 1957, Ai Weiwei is the son of Ai Qing, a well-known Chinese poet who was denounced during the Anti-Rightist Campaign (1958-59) and subsequently banished to a labor camp in Xinjiang. During the late 1970s Ai attended the Beijing Film Academy and in 1979 exhibited his work with “the Stars” in what is widely regarded as the first exhibition of avant-garde art in post-Mao China. In 1981, Ai moved the United States where after a year in Philadelphia followed by a second in Berkeley, he settled in New York City. There he experimented with different forms of art making, including the production of sculpture from found objects, a method introduced to him by a book about Duchamp. Upon his return to Beijing in 1993, Ai became interested in classical Chinese art and grew to appreciate the skill and instincts of craftspeople that, under the influence of various imperial dynasties, had created objects whose beauty he was shocked to find in the stalls of flea markets.

In response, Ai began to research the materialistic consumer culture then emerging in China and to study the mechanisms used to construct political and national symbolism. Fusing the hands-off strategies of the Duchampian readymade and with a bias for Minimalism, Ai has developed what critic David Coggins calls a “humane conceptualism—a “cunning, humorous and ultimately compassionate form of provocation to the global scene”.

While the works that result speak universally, for Ai, the specific context of China is always the starting point. Among Ai’s most widely recognized contributions to date is Beijing’s National Olympic Stadium (2008), for which he served as a consultant to architects Herzog & de Meuron. (The design, which was proposed by Ai, originated from a study of Chinese ceramics and employs a web of steel beams intended to mask supports for a retractable roof that was never actually built but gives the structure the appearance of a bird's nest.) Prior to the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, Ai distanced himself from nationalistic propaganda that attempted to use the stadium as a symbol. Fairytale, the first his two contributions to “Documenta 12” (2007), brought 1001 Chinese citizens to Kassel, Germany, over the course of this exhibition’s 100 days. The second, Template, was a radiating arch-like gate made of Ming Dynasty doors and windows collected from Beijing buildings razed to make room for new development. Destroyed by a powerful windstorm shortly after its installation, Template remained on view throughout the exhibition in its fallen state at Ai’s request. Despite these and other activities in a variety of media and cultural arenas (including a popular blog that has been repeatedly shut down by Chinese authorities due to Ai’s provocative writings and an ongoing attempt to collect the names of the schoolchildren who perished in the Sichuan earthquake of 2008) Ai’s fascination with ceramics and its powerful links to China’s cultural identity remains central to his work. Establishing a connection between Ai’s activism and his creative practice, Tinari’s essay for the exhibition catalog quotes the artist saying: “Duchamp had the bicycle wheel, Warhol had the image of Mao. I have a totalitarian regime. It is my readymade.”

Ai Weiwei: Dropping the Urn

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