Review of Ai Weiwei: Dropping the Urn (Ceramic Works, 5000 BC – AD 2010) at the V&A
Having just been named third in Time magazine’s Person of the Year, there has never been a better time for this exhibition of Ai Weiwei’s ceramics. Oddly, then, the V&A have given it a rather muted reception, neither advertising the show nor even sign-posting it within the museum itself. But, understated though it may be, those visitors intrepid enough to make their way up to the sixth floor (past the permanent ceramics collection, including some fabulous contemporary pieces well-worthy of a visit in themselves) will be greatly rewarded by this quietly provocative display.
It is perhaps ironic that, at the heart of the institution which has gone farthest to preserve our cultural heritage of ceramics, acquire outstanding examples, and commission new pieces, Ai Weiwei’s exhibition focuses primarily on their destruction. ‘I hate ceramics’, Ai is quoted as saying: and one could believe it, with the artist systematically investigating the diverse means by which they can be defaced and demolished.
Taking antique objects of inestimable cultural and historical worth for China, Ai irreverently (and irrevocably) gives them a postmodern makeover. The numerous earthenware pots, dating from 5000-3000 BC and dunked in brightly coloured paint to obscure the original glaze and decoration, are the lucky ones in this exhibition, with the aptly named photographic triptych ‘Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn’ depicting just that – Ai audacious dropping (and shattering) a 2000 year old vase. Arguably worse-off still, is the Neolithic pot emblazoned with the words ‘Coca-Cola’, having undergone the degradation from art object to product (…until it goes up for auction, that is)
But, crucially, this is not an exhibition of the senseless destruction wreaked by one man, but of a contemporary society upon its own historical culture. Quite the opposite of disinclination towards the medium, Ai Weiwei in fact elevates these antiques as tangible symbols of a China obliterated by the Cultural Revolution. Thus the works represent quite the opposite of what one might expect, with the artist self-consciously sacrificing the one to express his grief for the many. ‘For Ai there is no dividing line between art and activism’, we are told: this is far more convincing than any sulky protestations against kitchenware. Words: Isabel Seligman & Thomas Keane / Photo: Thomas Keane © 2011 ArtLyst