Ai Weiwei maintains a classic love-hate relationship withclay: on-and-off, ecstatic and tortured. “Ceramics is kind of crazy,” he once claimed, but “if you hate something too much, you have to do it. You have to use that.” Indeed, for an artist who claims to dislike the medium, Ai is certainly deeply implicated, maintaining a pottery studio with 20 skilled ceramists located amid the former imperial kilns of Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province. His output is prodigious, from traditional pots to “studio” work unrelated to the vessel, and it has consistently dissected and challenged China’s past and present, exposing finely crafted mythologies about art, civilization, connoisseurship and monetary value. This ambivalent passion has been captured in “Dropping the Urn” a jewel-box of an exhibition focusing only on the artist’s ceramic investigations.
The show’s name derives from what may be the artist’s most iconic work, a triptych of large black-and-white photographs, Dropping a Han-Dynasty Urn (1995), that makes us witnesses to the willful destruction of a superb, “museum quality” urn that had survived for 5,000 years in pristine condition. In sequential images, the artist impassively sends it crashing to its death. Dropping rightly dominates the installation, a reminder of Ai’s fearless, transgressive iconoclasm or, alternatively, the depth of his desire to clown his audience. The mystery surrounding the frequent claim that the artist dropped one of the thousands of excellent fakes in current circulation will never, for lack of a better word, be cracked.
Even though Dropping is one of the earlier works in the exhibition, it remains his most thought-provoking, and belongs to a small group of 20th-century ceramics that have changed the face of contemporary art. This class includes Marcel Duchamp’s appropriated urinal, Fountain (1917), Isamu Noguchi’s The Queen (1931), Meret Oppenheim’s fur-covered spoon and teacup Object (1936), Kazuo Yagi’s Walk (1954) and Jeff Koons’ gilded neo-court porcelain, Michael Jackson and Bubbles (1988). In fact, Fountain and Dropping make perfect bookends for 20th-century avant-gardism. Both pieces were viewed as offensive (albeit for different reasons), and in both the ceramic component was lost, one through indifference and the other by design. The originals live on only as photographs.
An equivalent ruthlessness applies in three other works, Coca-Cola Vase (1997), Colored Vases (2006) and Dust to Dust (2009). The first two are Iron Age pots that have been clobbered, the first with the addition of a painted Coca-Cola logo, the second by dipping a group of pots in house paint to obscure the millennia-old surface painting. Dust to Dust, one of the show’s most complex pieces conceptually, is also the most prosaic, visually—an undistinguished glass jar contains Neolithic pots that have been ground to powder. These three works dance nimbly as “contemporary” works, and generate arguments on multiple layers: cultural imperialism is attacked from all sides in Coca-Cola Vase, while Dust to Dust speaks with surprising humanity about lifespans, mortality and what we expect of form in art.
Ai is particularly fond of playing with clay’s mimetic gift, its chameleon-like ability to convincingly disguise itself as another material. This quality was originally explored in the virtuosic “maroon-clay” Yixing wares from the 15th century onward, the first individually signed ceramic artworks in China, that mimicked with eye-deceiving fidelity wood, nuts, root vegetables, gourds, rocks, cloth, leather bags and other materials. Watermelons (2006) is a pair of lusciously glazed melon forms that from a distance appear convincingly real (the artist likes to show these in fields, in large numbers). Untitled (2006), a compelling installation, is a pile of sunflower seeds, China’s most ubiquitous snack-food, weighing exactly one ton. Each hand-painted porcelain seed is a marvel of trompe l’oeil craftsmanship and in subtle ways made to be even more beautiful and “aesthetic” than the seeds themselves.
With visual and contextual intelligence, the exhibition’s spare installation gives each work space to breathe, and follows a linked narrative that gently and appropriately loops back and forth through history, much like the works on display. The accompanying catalog, like the exhibition, is unafraid to wonder if the work holds up to close scrutiny and can transcend shock or gimmickry. “Where is Weiwei?” and “When is Weiwei?” are queries raised in a fine essay by the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Glenn Adamson. The show pursues these open lines of inquiry in ways that give the viewer rational points of entry, allowing the artist’s extravagance and egalitarianism to battle each other, never letting us forget that Ai is a constantly moving target, as ready to break society’s rules as he is his own. Most importantly, however, this precise, exemplary show allows Ai’s ceramics their full voice as contemporary artworks autonomous of their ancient medium—contradictory, complex and compelling.