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

Release date: 03/29/10

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Ai Weiwei: Dropping the Urn (Ceramic Works, 5000 BCE – 2010 CE)
On view July 15 – October 30, 2010
Museum of Contemporary Craft

PORTLAND,OR—March 29, 2010—Museum of Contemporary Craft in partnership with Pacific Northwest College of Art is pleased to present Ai Weiwei: Dropping the Urn (Ceramic Works, 5000 BCE – 2010 CE), a solo exhibition of works by Beijing-based, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei (b. 1957). Opening July 15, 2010, the show will run through October 30, 2010. Co-curated by Richard Torchia, Arcadia University gallery director, and Gregg Moore, Associate Professor of Art and Design at Arcadia University, the exhibition originated at Arcadia University Art Gallery and travels to Museum of Contemporary Craft as the first solo show by the artist to be exhibited on the West Coast.

Featuring a selection of ceramic works and photographs ranging from 1993 to the present, Ai Weiwei: Dropping the Urn will offer viewers a focused look at Ai’s iconoclastic appropriations of historic clay pots and porcelain vases. The oldest pieces in the show utilize 7000-year-old Neolithic urns dating from 5000 BCE. The aura of these and other artifacts helps to define a body of work distinguished by its paradoxical investment in the Chinese ceramic vessel, a legacy whose values and significations the work both questions and transcends. Ai’s focused exploration of earthenware and porcelain, begun when the artist returned to Beijing in 1993 after a decade in New York City, is critical to understanding a 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 will include examples of Ai’s unprecedented use of Neolithic and Han dynasty vessels as “readymades” that the artist subjects to a variety of procedures. These include marking Museum of Contemporary Craft to Host First West Coast Solo Exhibition of Work by Contemporary Chinese Artist Ai Weiwei 2000-year-old clay urns with hand-painted inscriptions of the “Coca-Cola” logo, dipping them into vats of industrial paint, smashing them on the ground in performances for the camera, and grinding the vessels into powder. Writing in the exhibition’s catalog essay about Ai’s “gestural practice” of defacing and destroying of these ancient objects to transform them into works of contemporary art, Beijing-based critic Philip Tinari remarks that these works provide “the illusion of clarity alongside the persistent specter of ambiguity.” What appears at first “like the sublimation of an ancient object’s financial value and cultural worth into a different yet parallel carrier of updated value and worth” also serves as a “satire of the ruling regime’s approach to its patrimony, and of contemporary China’s curious relation to its past, a situation where destruction of historical artifacts happens almost daily.”

The exhibition will also showcase 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. Ai’s contemporary versions of these “blue and white” flasks and jars are impossible to distinguish from the priceless originals without the aid of carbon dating, if even then, as counterfeiters often mix in flecks of old clay to foil investigators. As such, these and other “fake” works in the exhibition stand as material interrogations of authenticity and the ways in which value is constructed and perceived. Other, more recent works in the exhibition, such as a pair of spherical “watermelons”, mimic the traditional trompe l’oeil strategy of producing glazed teapots and vases that replicate natural forms. Like many of the other works in the exhibition, they play with notions of the vessel as container vs. that which is contained while prompting questions that can broach issues of labor, class, and power. The largest piece in the exhibition, for example, appears to be a conical pile sunflower seeds, a common street snack in China. Each “seed” however, is painstakingly handcrafted from porcelain. Weighing precisely one ton, the mound’s resemblance to minimalist sculpture and the free takeaways of Felix Gonzales-Torres is contradicted by its profligate expenditure of manual effort as well as a reference to a line of communist propaganda suggesting that the Chinese people were sunflowers following Mao Zedong. 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.

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, 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 politically-oriented in all contemporary Chinese practice.”

Ai Weiwei: Dropping the Urn seeks to infuse a polemic to the discourse about ceramics in the region and expand the scope of this discussion to include the broader concerns of international contemporary art. 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, and will be distributed in the U.S. by RAM Publications.

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 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 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 of 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.”

Committed to the advancement of craft since 1937, Museum of Contemporary Craft in partnership with Pacific Northwest College of Art is one of Oregon’s oldest cultural institutions. Centrally located in Portland’s Pearl District, the Museum is nationally acclaimed for its curatorial program and is a vibrant center for investigation and dialogue, expanding the definition of craft and the way audiences experience it.

Ford Institute for Visual Education
Paul G. Allen Family Foundation · BOORA Architects · The Collins Foundation · Maribeth Collins · Truman and Kristin Collins · John Gray Charitable Fund of the Oregon Community Foundation · First Independent Wealth Management · Douglas Macy · Mary Maletis · Miller Nash, LLP · PGE Foundation · Regional Arts & Culture Council · Harold & Arlene Schnitzer CARE Foundation · The Estate of Gordon Smyth · Al Solheim · The Standard · Mary Hoyt Stevenson Foundation · Rose E. Tucker Charitable Trust · US Bank · Western States Arts Foundation · Whiteman Foundation

With special thanks to: Gerding Edlen Development and their support of the PNCA/Cyan PDX Cultural Residency Program, The Heathman Hotel and the Nines Hotel.

Museum of Contemporary Craft
in partnership with Pacific Northwest College of Art
724 Northwest Davis Street