Ai Weiwei’s Smashing Success at the Art Market

At a London auction held October 18, 2008, a three-photo work of Chinese avant garde artist Ai Weiwei was sold for a bid of 49,250 pounds sterling or about a half-million reminbi. The triptych, from a limited edition of eight identical pieces, was formerly owned by the Galerie Urs Meile, which is based in Lucerne and the 798 Art District in Beijing. Ai Weiwei is a world-renowned artist and dissident, recently arrested on charges of financial irregularities related to his new Shanghai studio, which his supporters claim was prompted by political motives.

The Phillips de Pury auction catalog, describes the photograph series produced in 1995: “The tripartite documentation of this now-famous act is the perfect illustration of Newton’s three Laws of Motion: a poker-faced Ai holding the urn (the law of inertia), the urn dropping in midair (the law of resultant force), and the vessel’s fragments at his feet (the law of reciprocal actions).”

The series titled “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn” is described by the auctioneer as “a painstakingly deliberate close-up of the split seconds required to permanently transform an artifact that had survived over two thousand years.”

Permanent transformation is a contrived way of saying: the ancient ceramic vessel.was smashed deliberately by someone the Tate Modern has hailed as “China’s greatest artist.”

The seller added: “While the triptych gained notoriety as an iconoclastic gesture, it encapsulates several broader constants in Ai’s work: the socio-political commentary on the random nature of vectors of power; questions of authenticity and value (vis-à-vis the artist’s comment that the value of ‘Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn’ has today exceeded that of the once-prized urn itself), and the cycle of creative destruction necessary for any culture’s survival and evolution.”

The photograph set is something more than the visual record of an artistic gesture .It is evidence for a criminal investigation under China’s Antiquities Law, which forbids destruction of the nation’s cultural heritage.

If this case is brought to trial – and the Ministry of Culture would be grossly negligent if it fails in its duty – the prosecution would first have to determine the nature of the charge related to urn smashing. Was it an act of vandalism, malicious in intent and senseless in its end result? Or was it a commercial crime aimed at profiteering from the image of destruction, made possible by the urn’s intrinsic cultural worth and its market value, as described in the catalog? In short, is Ai Weiwei mainly a vandal or a crook?

Comparative CriminologyAi Weiwei and his supporters decry the decision by Shanghai authorities to bulldoze his new studio over a violation of property laws. On the scale of destruction, in my opinion, demolishing a brick studio seems minor and ordinary compared with willfully shattering a 2,000-year-old vase. Another studio can be built, but the urn as an entity is an irrecoverable loss.

Another way of looking at such violent actions is through Ai Weiwei’s own lens of conceptual art. Think of his studio being stripped of all mundane or economic matters, leaving only its symbolic value. The driver of the bulldozer is “the artist” making a statement about “the cycle of creative destruction.” The Municipality of Shanghai should then put photos of the demolition up for auction at Phillips, Christies or Sotheby’s to earn revenues that could at least help city residents offset the wrecking costs. Actually, Ai Weiwei’s friends late last year held a crab dinner in celebration of the impending studio demolition, thereby unintentionally giving recognition to the anonymous bulldozer driver as one of their own in deed, if not spirit.

Under Ai Weiwei’s guiding concept of attacks against artworks as a valid type of art, George Bush should be awarded a grand prize for the ransacking of the Iraqi National Museum and Aurel Stein could qualify posthumously for an honorable mention in his theft of the Dunhuang manuscripts. If only Stein had been a daring artistic visionary instead of a banal retentive collector – for he could have instead spectacularly set fire to those venerable scrolls. Though a complete failure as an oil painter, Adolf Hitler was quite competent at shock art, far surpassing Ai Weiwei with the torching of hundreds of paintings and entire libraries from the decadent past.

The inspiration and direct influence on the radical artist and his pal, the theoretician of modernist aesthetics Liu Xiaobo, came from the Red Guard movement, which succeeded in dismantling countless “rotten” old Taoist shrines, Buddhist temples and Tibetan monasteries. How many “feudalist” sculptures of bodhisattvas did those two budding artists deface and dismember as teenagers? What sorts of creative pranks did they unloose on “superstitious” images inside Taoist chapels? Nothing can be more modernist, nihilistic and amusing than iconoclasm.

In interviews, Ai Weiwei describes antiquities as readymade art, or found objects (in contrast to the Dada movement, which focused on the “artifacts” of the modern Industrial Age). He has no qualms about painting the Coca Cola logo on Neolithic pottery. His adolescent years coincided when many precious treasures were,desecrated, stolen or smuggled out of country. Ai Weiwei’s casual description of picking up “found” objects of ancient origin – some of great monetary value – is reminiscent of the mental habits of the art thieves in western China who, as I know so well from several clashes at desert-ecology sites, are incredibly bold and cheeky when attempting to steal another’s property, or should we say “expropriate” for the “the masses”?

After dropping out of design school in New York, he frequented Atlantic City casinos to gamble at blackjack as a full-time profession and apparently sold poker chips to visiting Chinese tourists. Again, Ai Weiwei was only a short step from the mahjong tables in western China villages, the gathering points of the underworld of the countryside.

Rolling Stones Go DownhillBianca Jagger, who is sponsoring a worldwide petition demanding the release of Ai Weiwei, should get up to speed with his anti-art program. Bianca, if you support an iconoclast like Master Ai, why then do you waste your time trying to save Hasankeyf, an ancient town in Turkey, from being flooded by a new dam?

In this world, Bianca dearest, there is past and future, losers and winners, aborigines and conquistadors. You belong with the powerful, rich and famous. Ai Sifu teaches people like you to let go of the past, just “drop it” like an old pot. When those memories that hold you back are pulverized to bits, they’re gone forever. Once everything is transformed, your life can begin afresh. Ai Weiwei is no doomed Inca or Apache; he is a New Yorker and so are you. Drugs, sex and rock ‘n’ roll are what’s hip in your world. Forget about trying to reinvent yourself as a Lara Croft, tomb raider. Being an archaeologist is for meek people who don’t have half your looks, brains or charm.

Han Ceramics

Only a pathetic old fool like myself cares about such worthless junk. My limited understanding of Han dynasty ceramics came about while conducting environmental surveys in deserts of the Dunhuang region. The first characteristic a newcomer notices about the remains of pottery bottles and cups littering the ground is that none are ever found whole. Discovery of an intact urn is today extremely rare, since most were stolen by grave robbers for sale to foreign collectors and to the world’s most respected museums.

To my horror, one of the sites that I discovered was soon looted by thieves who had followed my footprints in the sand. Stolen artifacts remain a huge business, even in the remotest places. Since that shock, I erase my tracks with a short broom and train my staff in security measures against theft of antiquities. When our team spends days and weeks trying to protect and preserve these modest sites – for no financial gain and not for exhibitionism – it is sickening to see world-renowned “artist” Ai Weiwei purposely drop an urn to his feet. His head must be as empty as that cracked pot.

How exactly Ai Weiwei came into possession of an undamaged Han vessel is a matter of curiosity, as well as a question for the state prosecutors. If it was robbed from a grave, then he has committed the crime of purchasing a stolen artifact and, on top of that, destroying it. The only plausible defense is for the suspect to claim that the “Han urn” was a fake, a reproduction, which then means he has committed fraud by convincing the collectors that it was the genuine article. Either way, he’s guilty and should be punished harshly.

Smashing Pumpkins

Naughty children enjoy smashing pumpkins, but for some maladjusted adults the thrill comes from shattering valuable ceramics. The more beautiful an object, the greater the satisfaction from its destruction. Ai Weiwei’s notorious act of breakage is quite puny compared with the wild abandon of the Americans he so admires. In the military intervention against the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, the Yanks stormed the Forbidden City and were awestruck at the sight of the Imperial collection of priceless vases. So these brave and free fellows smashed hundreds of urns to smithereens in an orgy of destruction, before rampaging against the city’s inhabitants. There’s nothing new, creative or liberating about busting a Han urn. It’s simply proof of barbarity.

The joy in vandalism arises from the urge to commit sacrilege, which is the bold act of little men against any ancient and grand cultural tradition that reminds them of the pettiness and futility of their own existence. The obese and physically large Ai “Fei-Fei” is at heart one of those little men. Hailed as a Nietzchean superman – rising above the good and evil of conventional morality – by the Western arts scene, the fact is that he’s just an expendable scout for the missionaries from the high culture of the West. His job is to inspire young Chinese to reject and eradicate their grandparents’ obsolete ethics and misguided respect for scholarship once and for all.

As Ai Sifu has stated so eloquently: “F–k Chinese tradition.” To prove if you’ve learned from this great master, Bianca and all you petitioning true believers out there, shout it out loud: Screw Hasankeyf! Rip down Luxor, raze Angkor Wat and set fire to Kyoto. Heed the aesthetic maxim of anarchist and bomb-throwing terrorist Mikhail Bakunin: “The passion for destruction is also a creative passion.” Now doesn’t that make you feel a lot better about yourselves?

The photo of the artist’s grossly fat carcass copulating with the head of a plaster Flying Horse should be enough to convince any sane observer that he is not creative in the least, just a deranged whacko in desperate need of psychiatric treatment. Let’s hope, for the sake of his immortal legacy, that the flattened site of his studio reemerges as a new shrine to contemporary culture – since Shanghai could always use another McDonald’s.

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