Ai Weiwei’s Iconoclastic Action

(“BBC : Ai Weiwei, Without Fear or Favour” from aiweiweidocumentary on Youtube)


Artist Ai Weiwei in Beijing after his release from secret detention in 2011. The play “#aiww: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei” opens in London on April 11. (Andy Wong / Associated Press / February 19, 2013)

Recently dance to Gangnam style with the released handcuff, Ai Weiwei, one of the most global renowned Chinese artists who always embroiled himself in controversy, is also an influential figure who interacts in diverse ways with the rising tides and bubbles of the Chinese art scene. (Read below to see“BBC : Ai Weiwei, Without Fear or Favor” from aiweiweidocumentary)

Born in 1957, Ai Weiwei is a compelling figure who emerged onto the contemporary art scene. His art practice negotiates the paradigm shifting, translation, and transformation of cultural norms. Ai Weiwei’s iconoclastic works also show an element of performance and drama. This drama is created by his use of traditional materials and icons which reveal his media mastermind.

“In order to effect social change, the old values must be replaced or destroyed and either new values set up or an open space of no values created for the wind to blow through. This destruction of old values is the Revolution of Cultures.”
Kamau Patton commented on Ai Weiwei .

ai weiwei

Ai Weiwei, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, Photo-triptych, 1995

As the volume of Ai’s voice rises from international media outlets and throughout the internet, one of his simple gestures is zooming out. By dropping an aged urn in his 1997work “Accidental Dropping”(pic), he proposes a question about cultural value. It is not a new question but a fairly common question that millions of people from his culture have been asking for a century while confronting the issue of Westernization.

This “Accidental Dropping” was a performance he acted in 1995, Beijing. He allows a Han dynasty urn (207 BC-220 AD) to fall to the ground and break into pieces. Ai quoted Duchamp’s words in the catalogue, “It’s just my own game. Nothing else.”

Three pictures documented and framed his action in motion. To view them on the surface, this is a demonstration about destroying a traditional cultural bond. The “Accidental Dropping” is framed as a form of black and white photo documentation, nothing else. But there are several layers behind the scene. Through this form of performance, Ai was later able to transfer it to mass reproducible photography. His deconstructing action seems to be never ending. This opens a huge amount of room to generate new meanings in different cultural contexts. Viewers from various backgrounds can read it as iconoclastic performance, or a manifesto of personal freedom, or “Nonexistence makes it work.” Even, Ai’s Duchampian nihilism might also be corresponds to the Taoism “nothingness.”

Growing up in a society where the historical memory has been erased by political reason, this Taoist concept is absolutely one of the objects that Ai would “drop” out. Closing the window of traditional notions, it opens a door for tremendous possibilities. To Ai, what the previous generations tried to construct is a kind of fantastic and imaginative idea of the “good old times,” exaggerating the nostalgia of tradition and content. This is a contemporary reconstruction of something that didn’t actually exist or at least didn’t exist in the same way as imagined, so it’s not a question of authenticity; it’s a question of necessity and memory as an instrument.
In this drama of smashing the old world, Ai intrigues audiences to question: “What is the present that he positions?” “What is the Utopia that he (and we) envision(s)?”

Ai Weiwei, Neolithic Culture Pot with Coca-Cola Logo, 1992, Neolithic pot with acrylic paint. Photo Courtesy of the artist

Ai Weiwei, Neolithic Culture Pot with Coca-Cola Logo, 1992, Neolithic pot with acrylic paint. Photo Courtesy of the artist

Ai’s casual outfit similar to the Han dynasty costume, enhances the performance drama of this “Accidental Dropping”. Ai’s antique-smashing behavior is a Revolutionary gesture, that is directed toward his own culture and that of the contemporary art scene. Ai’s act of dropping, white-washing or color-painting the urns, could also be viewed as responsive to “being itself is the product of Not-being,” if you manage to link with traditional Taoism as anxious conservative scholars do. Taoist philosophy “the Way that can be told of is not an unvarying way; the names that can be named are not unvarying names…” would be, although absudly, echoing the way of Ai’s performance.

Ai is not only deforming the urns. What he tried to deform is the lengthy Chinese history. Every artifact conveys heavy connotations. Whenever it is born, it is born with the thousands-year-old culture. To be a contemporary Chinese artist, it seems not only that one has to “say good bye to post-colonialism,” as the theme of 2008 Guangzhou Triennial suggests, but one has to say good-bye to China’s heavy tradition. Ai Weiwei’s defacement of antiques is one more action to depart from the past. It is more than a debate between Ai and art, Ai and his culture. It is a self-Revolution. Through the iconoclastic praxis, he deconstructs historical contexts but at the same time creates an “Ai Weiwei myth.”
Creative Commons License Ai Weiwei’s Iconoclastic Action by Gwen Kuo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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11 thoughts on “Ai Weiwei’s Iconoclastic Action

  1. Awesome post! He was one of the artists who really influenced me to consider studying abroad in China. It was a special to see some of his work in Beijing while I was there (but also eerie).

    • Good to know that you studied in China. Ai Weiwei is certainly influencial, but not the only figure from China of contemporary art scene. I looked at your blog and impressed that your art practice does have the vibe of raw but vivid and sincerity that I dote on.

  2. Gwen,
    I enjoyed this post quite a lot. I must confess, in my thinking about Ai a Daoist perspective never came to mind, least of all 道可道非常道. I suppose I see your point, but find it a bit of a stretch nonetheless. I think more to the point (which you do refer to) in the photograph series of falling artifacts is value, and also authenticity. The fact that photographic prints of the destruction of something valuable are themselves valuable is typical of Ai’s style, derived from artistic performances elsewhere to be sure, but also characteristically his own. Each time I see these I find myself wondering again 1. if those are indeed “real” ancient vessels he’s destroying and 2. whether or not that matters. brilliant, really.

    • Hi paulmanfredi,
      Thanks so much for your thoughtful response. Yes Ai Weiwei is a complex figure. And that is why most of the people can see him in different angles, which is also reflecting a certain degree of self mirrored world. I appreciate your truthful and intellectual response. Good day, Gwen


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