Sunday, 29 January 2012

Looking for Ai Weiwei at the V & A

My reason for going to London was the Leonardo show at the National Gallery. But the other thing I really wanted to see was an Ai Weiwei exhibition listed on the Victoria and Albert Museum website. Tom and I went to the V & A and dutifully attended their big Postmodernism show, which he found interesting and I found confusing. We both were delighted to see a video and some material about Karol Armitage, called "the punk ballerina," in the part of the exhibition that actually connected to my own idea of Postmodern.  She's from Lawrence; we really like her parents and have enjoyed meeting her as well.

After checking out two other exhibitions, we left the museum, rushing to get to the theater; only later did I realize that we hadn't seen Ai Weiwei or anything about him. So when we returned to London a week later, the show was my first priority.

There was no signage at the Museum entrance and no listing in the exhibitions section of the events calendar. I asked the information booth person and she pointed me to a listing at the BACK of the calendar, where I also saw listed an installation about Jingdezhen , the pottery-making center in China, which had also interested me. The information person directed us to the floor where the Ai Weiwei show was. But when we got there, the ceramics galleries, there was again no sign and no indication of Ai. So we wandered a bit. I found some pottery and a video from Jingdezhen and thought maybe that was the show, but it wasn't. The video included a Chinese man carrying lots of unfired porcelain on two trays suspended from a pole across his shoulders; I thought it was a charming image. I also photographed a tall vase that was made in sections and joined together, a technique I had never thought about. There was lots to learn on this floor. Our friend Robert was busy on the gallery computer designing the most hideous teapot possible.

Neolithic jar, Victoria and Albert Museum
 Finally I decided I needed to scope out the floor and walked all the way to the end, where, to my delight, I found an exhibition of works by Ai Weiwei. It is titled Ai Weiwei: Dropping the Urn, and focuses on Ai's ceramic work. His photographs of Dropping the Urn are much larger than I had imagined, the famous three-part image of him dropping a Han vase. There's a video of Ai dipping Neolithic jars in house paint, and a large group of them on view, brightly colored and "modernized," but also destroyed as historical artifacts. The ancient jar with "Coca Cola" written across it is there, with a comparable jar from the V & A collection next to it (without the inscription, of course).

More objects related to China's destruction of its own cultural heritage in the interest of commercial growth and modernization included Souvenir of Beijing, 2002, a treasure box with a brick from a destroyed traditional home, Untitled, 1993, a Song Dynasty ceramic figure in a Johnny Walker Red Label Scotch bottle (identified one of Ai's earliest ceramic experiments), and Dust to Dust, a glass container of powder, the remains of a Neolithic jar that Ai had ground up. The label suggests the range of ways to think about these objects. While the vase is gone, the clay dust remains as a physical object, so the vase has been transformed into something else, not destroyed. The brick, although of no particular artist value in itself, is a treasured bit of history, preserved as a reminder of neighborhoods destroyed as China modernizes its housing. The figure in a bottle seems a reference to the commercialization of Chinese antiquities; the historical treasure as part of a salable knick-knack. (It also reminds me of Yinka Shonibare's ship in a bottle on the Fourth Plinth at Trafalgar Square, the four-ton sculpture of Nelson's ship with sails made of African cloth in a giant glass bottle. Both have historical political ramifications, but I suspect to quite different purposes.)

On the other side of the installation are a variety of traditional-looking vases in blue and white porcelain. But Ai again is encouraging the visitor to think about old and new, traditional and modern. He commissioned copies of famous vases that look quite similar to the masterpieces; I ask myself why it matters that one is new and one is old.

Ai Weiwei, Blue and White Vase, 1996
 Porcelain painted in underglaze cobalt blue, Jingdezhen, China
Long-necked vase, Qing dynasty, 1736-95,
Porcelain painted in underglaze cobalt blue, Jingdezhen, China
Victoria and Albert Museum 424.1931
For other vases he had the artisans paint the blue and white design inside the white jar, nearly hidden from view. He puts a blue and white jar inside a very large pure white jar. And the V & A includes some examples of blue and white Chinese pottery and porcelain from their collection so the visitor can compare Ai's commissions with the highly valued older versions.

Finally, there is a pile of porcelain sunflower seeds, a sampling of the 100 million he had installed in the Tate Modern last year. They are amazingly accurate and their labor intensity is daunting. These new objects, including the sunflower seeds, were made in Jingdezhen, that pottery capital.
Ai Weiwei, Kui Hua Zi, 2006, unglazed porcelain

Of course, since then I've notice that enormous numbers of the major Chinese porcelains in museum collections were made in Jingdezhen.

What do I think about these works? Dropping the Urn has made a number of people angry at Ai, and I found it rather horrifying when I first saw it. But it made me think about what China is doing all the time, destroying its past to create a future. And it's what we do when we destroy a work of architecture to make a new building, as I recently learned of the plans to destroy Mario Botta's once hated but now iconic staircase in the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco in order for Snohetta architects to construct a large white, rather bland new lobby entrance. It's analogous to ignoring the old objects in museums in favor of the more exciting contemporary art, or ignoring the permanent collection and only going to "new" exhibitions. Seeking the new, we overlook and destroy the old all the time, celebrating renewal and regeneration and mourning death and loss.

While I think Ai is protesting or embracing modernization in China, his work makes me think about what it means to modernize and how we should feel about destroying anything old. I always wonder if there are hundreds of thousands of Han Dynasty vases, for sale in shops and markets all over China, as well as filling museum storage areas all over the world. Was the work he destroyed unique and truly precious or was it just old? That's what we should be asking when we update or renew anything. Are we advancing or destroying our culture? Throwing out the excess trash or losing our heritage? Is it always a little of both?

The Jingdezhen blue-and-white objects make me think more specifically about value in art, as the labels suggest -  are they original, copies, or forgeries? The old works are of extraordinary value, while the new ones may be quite reasonably priced, the price no doubt enhanced by Ai's involvement in their conception.  Are they new versions from Jingdezhen of the old objects, copies of old objects, fake old objects, or Ai Weiwei contemporary conceptual objects? They don't look exactly the same, as a connoisseur  of this material would tell us, but to me they're all pretty beautiful. How should we value them?

The sunflower seeds can represent both the incredible productivity of the Chinese and their immense workforce, as well as their amazing skill in imitating real sunflower seeds. The exhibition label says that during the Cultural Revolution the Chinese people were likened to sunflowers turning toward the radiant light of Mao Zedong, so these individually painted objects may also intend for us to think of more than just the numbers of artisans in China.

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