Ai Weiwei: Dropping the Urn

Ceramic Works, 5000 BCE – 2010 CE

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Ai Weiwei: Dropping the Urn

Guest curators Philip Tinari and Richard Torchia introduce Ai Weiwei: Dropping the Urn (Ceramic Works, 5000 BCE – 2010 CE).

Ai Weiwei: Dropping the Urn

— Adapted from writing by Philip Tinari and Richard Torchia

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

Ai Weiwei was born in Beijing in 1957, 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 to 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 through a book about Marcel 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 who, 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 on view 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 of his two contributions to “Documenta 12” (2007), brought 1001 Chinese citizens to Kassel, Germany, over the course of the 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, Philip 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.”

A Conversation with Wei Hsueh and Namita Gupta Wiggers

PNCA Faculty Wei Hsueh and MoCC Curator Namita Gupta Wiggers discuss historical and cultural contexts for Ai Weiwei: Dropping the Urn.

Craft Conversation: Dawn Odell

In "Culture Clash: Understanding Value in Chinese Antiquities Now," Lewis and Clark Professor Dawn Odell looks to the history of Chinese art to provide a framework for understanding the work of Ai Weiwei.

CraftPerspectives Lecture: Philip Tinari

Philip Tinari, founding editor of LEAP, a new bimonthly journal of contemporary Chinese art based in Beijing, lectures on the practices of Jingdezhen porcelain production in the context of Ai Weiwei’s approach.

Craft Conversation: Dawn Odell
Culture Clash: Understanding Value in Chinese Antiquities Now
October 2, 2010

CraftPerspectives Lecture: Philip Tinari
Postures in Clay
October 19, 2010, 6:30 pm

July 15, 2010 – October 30, 2010

Curated by: Richard Torchia and Gregg Moore

Featuring a selection of ceramic works and photographs ranging from 1993 to the present, Ai Weiwei: Dropping the Urn offers viewers a focused look at Ai’s iconoclastic appropriations of historic clay pots and porcelain vases. The oldest works in the show utilize 7000-year-old Neolithic urns dating to 5000 BCE (‘Before Common Era,’ a non-religious alternative to the use of BC). This body of work is 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 just after the artist returned to Beijing in 1993 from a decade in New York City, is critical to understanding his 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 includes examples of a range of Ai’s practices, including his unprecedented use of Neolithic and Han dynasty vessels as historic “readymades,” 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, and mimicry of the traditional trompe l’oeil strategy of producing glazed teapots and vases that replicate natural forms. 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.

Exhibition Catalog

The exhibition is accompanied by a fully-illustrated catalog featuring four essays commissioned for the exhibition and appearing in both English and Chinese translation. Essays include contributions by Philip Tinari, Dario Gamboni, Stacey Pierson, and Glenn Adamson, as well as the first English translation of an interview with Ai originally published in his White Cover Book (1995). The exhibition catalog is produced in collaboration with Office for Discourse Engineering, a Beijing-based editorial studio, distributed in the U.S. by RAM Publications and available for purchase in The Gallery at Museum of Contemporary Craft.


Ai Weiwei: Dropping the Urn has been organized by Arcadia University Art Gallery and supported by the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage through the Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative. Curated by Richard Torchia, Arcadia University Gallery Director, and Gregg Moore, Arcadia University Associate Professor of Art and Design.


PNCA+FIVE Ford Institute for Visual Education

Paul G. Allen Family Foundation · The Collins Foundation · John Gray Charitable Fund of the Oregon Community Foundation · The Ford Family Foundation · MJ Murdock Charitable Trust · National Endowment for the Arts · Oregon Arts Commission · PGE Foundation · Regional Arts & Culture Council · Harold & Arlene Schnitzer CARE Foundation · The Standard · Mary Hoyt Stevenson Foundation · Rose E. Tucker Charitable Trust · Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt · The Western States Art Federation · Whiteman Foundation · ziba · Zimmer Gunsul Frasca Architects LLP

With special thanks to: Gerding Edlen Development and their support of the Cyan PDX Cultural Residency Program, The Heathman Hotel, The Nines Hotel, Twenty Four Seven, NWC Nick Weitzer Contracting and Willamette Week.