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Monday, April 7, 2014

Seattle Art Museum's First Ai Weiwei Piece Is Smashable

Posted by on Mon, Apr 7, 2014 at 12:47 PM

DROP THE VASE AND NOBODY GETS HURT Ai Wei Wei's Colored Vases, 2010, arrived the Seattle Asian Art Museum on April 5.
  • Courtesy of Seattle Art Museum and Mary Boone Gallery, New York
  • DROP THE VASE AND NOBODY GETS HURT Ai Wei Wei's Colored Vases, 2010, arrived at the Seattle Asian Art Museum on April 5.

Ai Weiwei's Colored Vases appeared at Seattle Asian Art Museum on Saturday, quivering, just waiting to be smashed. Poor vases. Their cheerful, rainbow-candy appearance is so dumb it's almost touching. They're baubles with hidden stories, stories that go back two thousand years.

But we'll start with 1993. That year, Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei returned to Beijing from New York to be with his ill father. He survived as a struggling artist by dealing in antiques, including a trove of Han Dynasty urns he acquired in order to turn around and sell them. But he made them into art, too. He reassembled old furniture into sculpture and splashed the red script of Coca-Cola and other Western trademarks onto antique pots.

Finally, in 1995, he made the work of art that would become his most commonly exhibited, reproduced, and written-about piece, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn. It's three black-and-white photographs. In the first, Ai looks straight at the camera and holds the long-necked urn across his chest with both hands. Next, the urn is midair at knee level. Finally it's in pieces on the floor, his fingers spread. The act "announce[d] his shift in identity, from antique dealer to artist," the Economist described. The urn, according to Alfred Jarry writing in ArtAsiaPacific magazine, was worth a few thousand dollars. Plus, two urns were "sacrificed" rather than one, "due to the failure of Ai's photographer to capture the first urn's fall to the ground."
But neither those particular urns nor their individual value was the point.

Ai was playing smashy-smashy with history, wiping the slate clean for himself and for Chinese art and culture. (The Han is the Chinese equivalent of the Roman Empire: the classical period.) Smashed urns also appear within the larger context of smashed lives.

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