Ai Weiwei’s Colored Vases appeared at Seattle Asian Art Museum on April 5, quivering, just waiting to be smashed. Poor vases. Their cheerful, rainbow-candy appearance is so dumb it’s almost touching. They’re baubles with hidden stories, stories that go back two thousand years.
But we’ll start with 1993. That year, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei returned to Beijing from New York to be with his ill father. He survived as a struggling artist by dealing in antiques, including a trove of Han dynasty urns he acquired in order to turn around and sell them. But he made them into art, too. He reassembled old furniture into sculpture and splashed the red script of Coca-Cola and other Western trademarks onto antique pots.
Finally, in 1995, he made the work of art that would become his most commonly exhibited, reproduced, and written-about piece, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn. It’s three black-and-white photographs. In the first, Ai looks straight at the camera and holds the long-necked urn across his chest with both hands. Next, the urn is midair at knee level. Finally it’s in pieces on the floor, his fingers spread. The act “announced his shift in identity, from antique dealer to artist,” the Economist described. The urn, according to Alfred Jarry writing in ArtAsiaPacific magazine, was worth a few thousand dollars. Plus, two urns were “sacrificed” rather than one, “due to the failure of Ai’s photographer to capture the first urn’s fall to the ground.”
But neither those particular urns nor their individual value was the point.
Ai was playing smashy-smashy with history, wiping the slate clean for himself and for Chinese art and culture. (The Han is the Chinese equivalent of the Roman Empire: the classical period.) Smashed urns also appear within the larger context of smashed lives. Ai’s freethinking father, revered poet Ai Qing, had been imprisoned and tortured by the pre-Communist government, then exiled and made to clean toilets for five years by Mao’s regime. For Ai, iconoclasm is an inheritance.
Contemporary Chinese life has been downright menaced by the wrecking ball. In 2011, the Chinese government demolished Ai’s own Shanghai studio—after having asking him to build it in the first place, as part of their economic engine in the region. He staged its final hours as an elaborate performance-art feast. Ai has street-protested demolitions.
The tragic crash of other buildings is part of Ai’s fate, too. He was jailed in Beijing in 2011, an act which is suspected to have been fueled by his rising criticisms of the government, which spiked after shoddy government school buildings fell in a 2008 earthquake and killed more than 5,000 children who were inside. When the government tried to shush him, Ai mobilized an army of volunteers to create an archive of every child’s name. He read them all aloud for a 2010 voice recording he called Remembrance, which has since been performed live at museums around the world. A huge printed list titled Names of the Student Earthquake Victims Found by the Citizen Investigation, 2008–2011, is included.
Meanwhile inside the art-world bubble, people can’t stop smashing Ai’s things. In 2012, a prominent Swiss collector who’d bought Ai’s early Coca-Cola urn dropped it to the ground while a Swiss artist photographed. They called it appropriation. Then, this past February, a Miami painter, who later said he was fed up with museums supporting international artists over local artists, walked into a museum, picked up one of Ai’s urns, and dropped it to the floor—right in front of the Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn photos on the wall, which he said inspired him.
The Colored Vases in Miami were different from those at SAAM (purchased for Seattle Art Museum, SAAM’s mothership, with funds from the estate of Robert M. Shields, architect of many houses and Canlis restaurant). SAAM has nine pot-bellied pots dipped in industrial paint, where Miami’s group was 16 of varying shapes.
But wait—are any of these vases actually 2,000 years old? The wall label at the museum says “Nine Han Dynasty vases and industrial paint,” but the press release only claims they’re “meant to look like Han Dynasty works.” “No one really knows the answer,” SAM associate curator Xiaojin Wu said in a phone interview. Someone once asked Ai directly, and he claimed surprise that anybody would even ask—that was his whole answer. Wu acknowledges that news reports are full of information about Chinese art and antiquity fakes. How do you find authentic history these days?
Ai has ensured—by covering their entire surfaces in paint—that there’s no casual way to authenticate the Colored Vases urns. The pop-art baubles are as dumb as they look. They perform Sphinx-like muteness. SAAM’s attendants have been apprised that these pieces carry silent stories of destruction. “Yeah,” Wu said, “we will be watching out.”