Ai Weiwei – Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995
The return of Ai Weiwei to China after living in New York City for more than a decade marked the beginning of a new form of art. No one knew all long he was thinking about the themes of transformation and destruction. He embarked on collecting ancient vessels with the aim of converting them into contemporary art pieces. Some people viewed this act as a way of collaborating with the ancient artists’ work, but some argued that it was misappropriating the artists’ work without their approval. This act provoked emotions since the urns were considered a form of consumer culture and heritage preservation, especially since he dropped it intentionally.
The destruction of this piece of art is displayed in a series of three black and white photographs which show Ai dropping a 2000 year-old Han Dynasty Urn. The first photo shows Ai holding the vase; the second one shows it in mid-air and the last one shows the vase shattered into pieces on the floor. Ai claims that he actually destroyed two urns in the process of creating the artwork, but his photographer was not able to capture the smashing of the first urn. Due to this act of destroying the historical artifact, the images became more valuable than the original object. The historical artifact became more exposed in a way the traditional methods of preservation couldn’t expose it.
Ai countered the outrage from people by describing what General Mao used to tell them, “the only way of building a new world is by destroying the old one.” The act was provocative considering that Communist China was a society that carefully monitored access to any information regarding its dynastic history. This act came as a shock to the art world, most people felt that it was very unethical to destroy any artifact under any circumstances, even if it was his original work or his intention was to create art. On the other hand, some people interpreted the message he was sending by destroying the artifact as a display of the little value we have for art work.
To date, some people even believe that Ai didn’t smash an authentic antiquity by claiming that it was a fake. Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995 is just one among the many art works Ai has done that focused on heritage loss and heritage preservation. Additionally, his artwork has also tackled one of the major challenges facing artists, antiquities theft. The smashing of the vase signified the central message Ai went on to explore using other artifacts.
Ai Weiwei – Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995, first panel of the triptych
Ai Weiwei – Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995, second panel of the triptych
Ai Weiwei – Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995, third panel of the triptych