Tuesday, 7 June 2011

"Artist" Ai Weiwei and the Damage Caused by Antiquity Collectors

Ai Weiwei (born 1957) is a controversial Chinese "artist, social commentator, and activist". Several times now US lawyer Peter Tompa has castigated archaeological preservationists that they do not react to the Chinese government's treatment of this person (he's under arrest) - though I do not really see the connection or why we should. Looking up the background to a comment by Larry Rothfield however leads me to the conclusion that I would like to see him arrested if that's the only way he can be prevented from wantonly damaging ancient artefacts as a means of drawing draw attention to himself. A blog post by Yanda on the "Artist and his model" blog is sufficient justification.
Many of Ai Weiwei’s works from the past decade, for example, are made of local materials and of antique Chinese objects: tables and chairs from the Ming and Qing Dynasties, wood, doors and windows from demolished temples and traditional houses, freshwater pearls, tea, marble, stone, bamboo etc. – ‘ready-mades’ translated into a conceptual, post-minimalist idiom. Alternatively, for his colored vase series, he takes Neolithic vases (5000 – 3000 B.C.) and paints them careless with bright industrial colors. Then he places them in an Allan McCollum style. The vases are authentic antique vases which could just as easily have stood in a collection in a historical museum in China. It is argued that it "is not contempt for China’s history and tradition that lies behind this harsh treatment of the fine old antiques – on the contrary. His use of the vases should rather be seen as a Dadaistic gesture, as black humour and as a political comment [...].
Ai Weiwei points to the loss of culture by transforming the historical objects into something new".
Yeah, right.

Painted Vases, 2009

Dunking complete authentic ancient pots into enamel paint is not "art". It is cultural vandalism, pure and simple.

Then we have his 1995 "work" Dropping a Han dynasty urn, 1995:

The destruction does not stop there:

In his ‘Dust to dust’ series he first crushed Neolithic-age pottery to powder and stored the gritty remains in a clear IKEA glass jar. Here, the funereal act of memorializing an old urn in a modern urn coupled with the implied violence of the grinding gives the work cerebral and visceral force.

Dust to Dust, 2008

Stuff and nonsense, there is no 'memorialisation' going on here, any more than driving a bulldozer through a graveyard smashing the headstones would be. Thus is sheer provocation.

As is this treatment of a vase from the Tang dynasty (618-907)

Coca Cola Vase, 1997
Another one (not, I think, Tang but older):

"Urns of this vintage are usually cherished for their anthropological importance. By employing them as readymades, Ai strips them of their aura of preciousness only to reapply it according to a different system of valuation. However, this is not the well-worn strategy of the readymade famously applied by Duchamp to his urinal Fountain, wherein the object lacked cultural gravitas until placed in an art context. Instead, Ai’s chosen readymades already have significance. Working in this manner, Ai transforms precious artifacts—treating them as base and valueless by painting, dropping, grinding, or slapping with a logo—into contemporary fine art. The substitution of one kind of value for another occurs when he displays the transformed urns in a museum vitrine, reinstilling value but replacing historical significance with a newer cultural one".
So in a way Ai Weiwei is treating "anthropological" objects in the same way as private antiquity collectors, applying their own notions of value on objects which as a result are stripped of other kinds (e.g, archaeological). By asserting private ownership over these items, collectors deny the rights of other stakeholders to determine what should happen to them, and affirm their right to do whatever they like to their "property". That is even to the extent of altering in whatever way takes their fancy or destroying them should they so wish. Which is what Ai Weiwei is doing to the antiquities that fall into his hands.

I really do not accept that "causing destruction to bring attention to destruction to stop destruction" is a useful way to protest (which is what the guy claims to be doing here) the destruction of the cultural heritage. That seems like protesting the threat to polar bears by filming them being fed with exploding fish and capturing the image of blood and guts on the virgin snow.

Pictures from here and here.


kyri said...

hi paul,i dont know how you can compare this "artist"to a collector of antiquities.what this guy is doing to these antiquities,which are works of art in their own right and all unique is a disgrace.which collectors do you know who buy antiquities only to destroy them?i dont know of any.
as for myself,i once droped a small gnathian oenochoe and the lip craked,i couldnt sleep that night and it spoiled my whole week,[i even think of it now and this happend 3 years ago]
collectors LOVE their pieces and treasure them.your realy clutching at straws comparing the two.this guy has as much in common with a collector of antiquities,as you have ie;nothing.

Paul Barford said...

Peter Tompa of the ACCG and the Cultural Property Research Institute says it is "art".


Please go and argue with him.

So where do you think Ai Weiwei GOT these pots from? Do you think he borrowed them from the local state museum? Or do you think he went out at night with a spade to an ancient cemetery? Or did he perhaps buy them on the local (or maybe international) antiquities market? I know there has been a lot of discussion of this Chinese trade among the antiquity collectors on Tim Haines' Yahoo "Ancient Artefact" discussion forum.

So would you agree with me that somebody who buys antiquities of this quality and deliberately destroys them (painting over their decoration, smashing them on the floor, grinding GRINDING them into dust) should be arrested for cultural property crime? Do precious survivals from the past have NO protection at all once they get into private hands, or should people be accountable for what they do to artefacts like this in the same way as they are about how they treat their horse, dog, or child?

See my further comments on what Tompa said with relation to what this guy has been doing to ancient artefacts: http://paul-barford.blogspot.com/2011/06/collectors-rights-and-ancient-art.html

kyri said...

paul,i agree with you in that anyone deliberately destroying ANY cultural property wether it belongs to them or not should be arested,i would support such a law.i as a collector consider myself as only a temporary custodian of any pieces i own and i know that one day they will pass on to someone else.art ofcourse is objective,to me art is a beutifully painted greek vase or a renaissance painting,to others art is a half made bed by tracy emin,or a spot picture by damien hirst which for me are not in any way artistic.after reading tompas past posts and the latest tirade by welsh i dont realy follow what they say,as a collector they certainly dont speak for me.

Paul Barford said...

Ah but they do, don't they? If their voice is all the public see then they do.

Where are the responsible collecting blogs? David Knell, Robyn C. and... and who?

We both know that the Yahoo group pretends to be "the ethical one", but what goes on there is anything but. Some of the worst pirates hang out there with the list "moderator's" blessing.

It is no good you lot telling the public that "we are not like them", that people like Welsh, Sayles, Tompa are a minority which have nobody's ear if there is no proof of that. For me the fact that Welsh, Sayles, Tompa and all the rest carry on unchallenged by more than a handful of good guys is pretty good evidence that there really is only a handful of good guys in the collecting milieu.

Tompa aims to speak for the milieu and would seem from the point of view of an outside observer to speak for the whole milieu, because none of the rest speak up for themselves.

Admin said...

Hi, from reading the comments I don't think you understand the meaning behind Ai Weiwei's destruction of these artifacts. By destroying them he is bringing up to attention what is happening in China everyday since the rise of the communist party and their political reform. After taking over, the communist party ordered a destruction of almost anything that was of Qing dynasty, including artifacts, vases, paintings and architecture. Ai Weiwei is not destroying those just for the sake of destruction. As of where he got them. He probably bought them from antique shop.

Paul Barford said...

Yes, absolutely right, I do not understand, like protesting gun laws by shooting someone, censorship by burning books and destruction of the natural environment by starting a wildfire you mean?

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