Essay by Joseph Antenucci Becherer, Chief Curator and Vice President
Ai Weiwei’s iconic Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn is a photo triptych (three-part panel) that dates to 1995. Its daring concept, form, use of objects and actions helped establish the artist and activist in the cultural world two decades ago. His idea was to illustrate the willful destruction of China’s historic buildings and antique objects during the Cultural Revolution of Chairman Mao. The forms are a set of documentary-style photographs. The symbolic object was a centuries-old vessel, and the action was its intentional destruction from his very own hands. The destruction of the vessel was a symbol of the Maoist destruction of traditional culture. Ai Weiwei realized his concept in a highly unique way and captured our attention.
The seed of every great work of art, piece of literature or music is a concept or idea that the artist wants to express. The timeless struggle is how the artist will give form to the ideas. Rodin used plaster, then bronze—while di Suvero uses steel. Shakespeare and Hemingway used words and carefully crafted sentences, while composers like Mozart and Marley used specific compositions and musical instruments. It’s a difficult journey to give form to one’s ideas, but we have come to expect our greatest artists to create something unlike anything we have experienced before. Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn does that.
Ai Weiwei is an artist overflowing with ideas, with concepts. There is much he wants to express regarding history and humanity, cultural and personal injustice, freedom of speech and human dignity. In fact, his ideas are so unique and important, he is most frequently viewed as a conceptual artist. To realize his concepts, he uses a broad and diverse array of objects that help convey his thinking. Ancient vessels or furniture become symbolic of Chinese history; the use of backpacks are stand-ins for children; traditionally crafted kites become symbols of freedom.
Consider for a moment Iron Tree, Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park’s own colossal sculpture. Here, Ai Weiwei wanted to create a work around the concept of numerous, disparate things coming together to form a new whole—like a society that seems homogenous, but is really composed of many different types of people. Specifically, he was looking for a visual metaphor to talk about individuality and nationality forging, awkwardly so, into a new reality. The form this object took was in 99 individual tree parts, of differing species, bolted together. Yes, it is a whole, but it is ultimately composed of many parts. Ai Weiwei’s decision to cast the wooden original in iron also tells us he wants his ideas and his forms to last.
As a conceptual artist, Ai Weiwei is not a maker of objects like Rodin was in plaster and bronze or di Suvero in steel. Although he is an excellent craftsman, photographer, and architect, Ai Weiwei frequently relies on existing or found objects to express his concepts. The artist found an ancient vessel just like he found pieces of trees, which he went on to transform. Ai Weiwei is a steadfast admirer of artists like Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol, who realized in the early and mid-20th century that anything could become art if it translated their ideas effectively. As a result, looking carefully at the materials that give form to an artist’s ideas is one of the most important and fascinating aspects of Contemporary art.
As a conceptual artist, Ai Weiwei might also use the work of artisans known for their painted ceramics or carved marble. As one of the first major artists to fully embrace social media, his Twitter feeds and Instagram posts have proved to be a form of art as well. He has far exceeded what either Duchamp or Warhol imagined a work of art could be. Although the diversity of form is broad for Ai Weiwei, his commitment to sharing his concepts and ideas remains steadfast and always keeps viewers thinking.
Returning to Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, consider how others would have traditionally approached the work. Maybe a painted picture or a carved sculpture? A long documentary film? These forms may have been perfectly appropriate in another time and place. But maybe not for society today. We need a jolt, a new way of seeing, an unusual presentation of an idea. We are willing to think about a concept or idea, but we often need the vision of a new master to grab our attention and keep it. This is what Ai Weiwei does so well. After all, he is a master.