Arcadia University Art Gallery Presents
Ai Weiwei: Dropping the Urn
Ceramic Works, 5000 BCE - 2010 CE
February 24 – April 18, 2010
About the Exhibition
Glenside (Pa.)—Arcadia University Art Gallery is pleased to present “Ai Weiwei: Dropping the Urn (Ceramic Works, 5000 BCE – 2010 CE)”, a solo exhibition of works by Chinese, Beijing-based artist Ai Weiwei (b. 1957). Opening February 24, 2010, the show will run through April 18, 2010 and is scheduled to coincide with the spring 2010 conference of the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA) to be held in Philadelphia (March 31 to April 3). After its presentation at Arcadia, the show will travel to the Museum of Contemporary Craft (Portland, Oregon) where it will open on July 15. Co-curated by gallery director Richard Torchia and Gregg Moore (artist and Associate Professor of Art and Design at Arcadia University), the exhibition is the first solo show by the artist to be presented outside of New York City in the United States.
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 it 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 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 tromp-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.
Planned in conjunction with the annual NCECA conference in Philadelphia this spring, “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 will be accompanied by a fully illustrated catalog featuring four essays commissioned for the exhibition and appearing in the book both in English and in Chinese translation. In addition to a comprehensive, first-hand account of the place of ceramics within Ai’s larger multi-disciplinary practice by Philip Tinari, the book will include a text by critic Dario Gamboni (examining Ai’s strategies within the legacy of iconoclasm); an essay situating Ai’s work within the tradition of Chinese ceramics by Stacey Pierson (a noted scholar in the field), and a text by Glenn Adamson (head of graduate studies in the research department at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London) exploring Ai’s ongoing iterations of his Coca Cola Vase. The catalog will also include the first English translation of an interview with Ai originally published in his White Cover Book (1995), the second in an influential trio of volumes that marked the re-emergence of the contemporary art scene in the mid-1990s. In addition to including material about Marcel Duchamp, these books were the first to publish images and information about the work of Jasper Johns, Jeff Koons, Jenny Holzer, and Barbara Kruger (among other contemporary American artists) in Chinese. 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.
March 3, 6:30 p.m.
- “Under the Hammer”: Lecture by Dr. Charles Merewether, art historian, curator and writer
Location: Arcadia University Theater, reception in art gallery immediately following
March 23, 6:30 p.m.
- “Rumors from the Desert”: Lecture by Srdjan Jovanovic Weiss, Architect, Normal Architecture Office (NAO), Philadelphia
Location: Stiteler Auditorium, Murphy Hall, reception in art gallery immediately following
April 1, 6:00 p.m.
- Broken Pots, Broken Dreams (2009): Screening of film by Maris Gillette, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Haverford College, followed by discussion with the filmmaker
- "Postures in Clay": Lecture by Philip Tinari, Beijing-based critic, and exhibition catalog essayist
Location: Stiteler Auditorium, Murphy Hall, reception in art gallery immediately following
“Ai Weiwei: Dropping the Urn” will also be supported by a range of public programs and special events. These include a lecture by art historian, writer, and curator Dr. Charles Merewether. Deeply familiar with the cross-disciplinary evolution of Ai Weiwei's practice, Merewether has published numerous essays about Ai's work and was editor of the first English monograph on the artist, Ai Weiwei - Works: Beijing 1993-2003 (Timezone 8 Ltd, 2003), followed by his book Under Construction: Ai Weiwei, (UNSW Press, 2008). Included amongst his many other publications is The Archive (MIT Press, 2006) and forthcoming book on the modern history of looting. Recognized internationally as an expert in contemporary Asian art, he has curated over 20 major exhibitions internationally. Merewether was Deputy Director of the Cultural District (Tourist Development & Investment Co.) in Abu Dhabi (2007-2008) and Arts and Culture Consultant for the Emirates Foundation in the UAE. Between 2004-2006 he was Artistic Director & Curator of the 2006 Biennial of Sydney and Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Cross Cultural Research, Australian National University. Collections Curator at the Getty Center in Los Angeles from 1994 to 2004, he has taught at the University of Sydney, Universidad Autonoma in Barcelona, the Ibero-Americana in Mexico City, and the University of Southern California. His lecture on March 3, will provide an in-depth survey of Ai Weiwei's practice and the critical role his ceramic work has played in its development and significance.
Additional programs include the March 23 presentation by Philadelphia-based Srdjan Jovanovic Weiss, one of 100 international architects invited by Ai (under the aegis of the firm of Herzog & de Meuron), to design a villa for a residential development in Ordos, Inner Mongolia. Weiss’ lecture will reflect his “engagement, cultural and disciplinary context of making a better city in 21st century. On April 1, the gallery will screening Broken Pots, Broken Dreams (2009), a new documentary by Philadelphia-based anthropologist Maris Gillette that explores the plight of crafts-persons working in Jingdezhen where Ai commissions his porcelain works. Gillette, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology at Haverford College, will speak about the film in conjunction with Philip Tinari (Editor-in-chief, LEAP, Beijing) who will discuss the practices of Jingdezhen porcelain production in the context of Ai’s approach.
About the Artist
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, writes:
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.
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 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 by 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 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.”
“Ai Weiwei: Dropping the Urn” has been supported by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage through the Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative.
Gallery Hours and Contact Information
Gallery Hours: Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Thursday 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Weekends noon to 4 p.m., as well as by appointment.
For more information: Contact Arcadia University Art Gallery at 215-572-2133 (or 215-572-2131) or visit www.arcadia.edu/gallery.
About the Arcadia University Art Gallery
A nationally recognized venue for contemporary art in the greater Philadelphia area, this 1,200-square foot facility (housed in a 1893 power station) has for more than 25 years provided the region with a stimulating roster of individual and thematic exhibitions shaped by its mission to encourage dialogue among artists, educators, students and the general public about current visual art and its socio-cultural relevance. Along with bringing the work of previously unexhibited or unknown artists to our region, the Gallery is also committed to local artists, actively encouraging innovative approaches to art production and acknowledging the contribution of long-standing, influential members of the art community. Educational programs invite the artists and highly respected scholars and curators to discuss each exhibition with the public.
About Arcadia University
Arcadia University is a top-ranked private university in metropolitan Philadelphia and a national leader in study abroad, ranked #1 in undergraduate participation in study abroad (Open Doors 2009). Arcadia University promises a distinctively global, integrative and personal learning experience that prepares students to contribute and prosper in a diverse and dynamic world. U.S. News & World Report ranks Arcadia University among the top master’s universities in the North, as one of the top study abroad programs in the nation, and as a “top up-and-coming school.” The Physical Therapy program is ranked 7th in the nation.