Ai Weiwei, Dropping A Han Dynasty Urn, 1995
Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995
Triptych: black and white photograph. Each: 148 × 121 cm (58 1/4 × 47 5/8 in). This work is from an edition of eight and is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity.
PROVENANCE Michael Goedhuis Contemporary, New York; The Estella Collection, New York; Private Collection, Switzerland
EXHIBITED Beijing, China Art & Archives Warehouse, Misleading Trails, 14 August –30 September 2004 (another example exhibited); New York, Robert Miller Gallery, Ai Weiwei, 9 September– 9 October 2004 (another example exhibited); Altgeld Gallery at Northern Illinois University, Misleading Trails, 18 January–13 May 2005 (another example exhibited); Denton, University of North Texas Gallery, 25 April – 2 July 2005 (another example exhibited); Winston-Salem, Charlotte and Philip Hanes Art Gallery at Wake Forest University, 22 August – 2 October 2005 (another example exhibited); Nashville, Fine Arts Gallery at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, 13 October – 9 December 2005 (another example exhibited); St. Mary's City, Boyden Gallery at St. Mary's College of Maryland, 17 January – 4 March 2006 (another example exhibited); Saratoga Springs, Schick Art Gallery at Skidmore College, 13 June – 22 September 2006 (another example exhibited); Lewisburg, Samek Art Gallery at Bucknell University, 5 October – 19 November 2006 (another example exhibited); Brisbane, Queensland Art Gallery, Fifth Asia-Pacific Triennale of Contemporary Art, 2 December 2006 – 27 May 2007 (another example exhibited); Humlebæk, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Made in China: Works from the Estella Collection, March – August 2007; Jerusalem, The Israel Museum, Made in China: Contemporary Chinese Art at the Israel Museum, September 2007 – March 2008; Campbelltown, Sherman Foundation of Contemporary Art, Ai Weiwei: Under Construction, 2 May – 29 June 2008 (another example exhibited); Liverpool, Liverpool Biennale, 20 September – 30 November 2008 (another example exhibited); Tokyo, Mori Art Museum, Ai Weiwei: According to What?, 25 July – 8 November 2009 (another example exhibited)
LITERATURE C. Merewether, ed., Ai Weiwei – Works: Beijing 1993–2003, Beijing, 2003, pp. 66–67 (illustrated); C. Merewether, 'Ruins in Reverse', in C. Merewether, ed., Ai Weiwei. Under Construction, Sydney, 2007, pp. 25–127 (illustrated pp. 26 and 59); D. Coggins, 'Ai Weiwei's Humane Conceptualism', Art in America, September 2007; P. Tinari, Ai Weiwei – Works: 2004–2007, Beijing, 2007, p. 10; C. Merewether, Made in China, New York, 2007, pp. 146–151 (illustrated); A. Kold, C. Barberi, M.J. Holm, eds., China Onward: The Estella Collection, Chinese Contemporary Art, 1996– 2006, Humlebæk, 2007, pp. 22–25 (illustrated); K. Smith, 'Portrait of the Revolutionary as an Artist', Art in Asia, May–June 2008, pp. 58–64 (illustrated); R. Cooke, 'Cultural Revolutionary', The Observer, 6 July 2008; A. Pasternak, 'Reluctant Return for a Beijing Provocateur', New York Sun, 7 March 2008; J. McDonald, 'Destruction and Creation', Sydney Morning Herald, 17 May 2008 (illustrated); 'Mr. Big', Frieze, Issue 116, June–August 2008 (illustrated)
Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn is perhaps the most famous example of Ai Weiwei's iconoclastic phase in the mid-1990s. A constant in Ai's diverse accomplishments in art, architecture and other activities is the artist's unrelenting scrutiny of structures of power and the advocacy of independent thought. Ai spent his early childhood in Inner Mongolia where his father, the famed poet Ai Qing, was exiled during the Cultural Revolution. After the family's return to Beijing, a disillusioned Ai left China for the United States where he would spend more than a decade. He returned to Beijing in 1993 and is today the most celebrated cultural commentator of independent spirit working in China. Ai's artwork in his New York days was heavily influenced by Duchamp, Johns, and Rauschenberg, focusing on the nature of and relationship between found objects. After his return to China in 1993, his work grew increasingly iconoclastic, formally breaking down traditional representations of authority and authenticity into surreal, sometimes disconcerting, yet always elegant new wholes. His favoured subjects were traditional Ming and Qing Dynasty furniture (the Furniture series) and urns and ceramics ranging from the Neolithic age to the Han Dynasty. Ai's photography exudes an openly revolutionary strain compared to his subtler sculptural works: June 1994 depicts his wife, the artist Lu Qing, with upraised skirt in a seemingly ordinary gesture in Tiananmen Square; the Study of Perspective series shows the artist's middle finger cheerfully poised at various international monuments. Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn is a painstakingly deliberate close-up of the split seconds required to permanently transform an artifact that had survived for over 2000 years. The tripartite documentation of this now-famous act is the perfect illustration of Newton's three Laws of Motion: a poker-faced Ai holding the urn (the law of inertia), the urn dropping in midair (the law of resultant force), and the vessel's fragments at his feet (the law of reciprocal actions). While the triptych gained notoriety as an iconoclastic gesture, it encapsulates several broader constants in Ai's work: the socio-political commentary on the random nature of vectors of power; questions of authenticity and value (vis-à-vis the artist's comment that the value of Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn has today exceeded that of the once-prized urn itself), and the cycle of creative destruction necessary for any culture's survival and evolution.