It's not often that Knoxville hosts work by an artist who's currently imprisoned. Yet that is the unfortunate status of the brilliant and feisty 53-year-old activist behind Ai Weiwei: Dropping the Urn, an exhibition at the Knoxville Museum of Art through Aug. 7. Organized by Pennsylvania's Arcadia University with curators Richard Torchia and Gregg Moore, the show includes new porcelain objects, Neolithic vases ground into dust and otherwise altered, "repackaged" artifacts, and a one-ton pile of handcrafted sunflower seeds. In keeping with Ai Weiwei's persona, the art on view is both captivating and unsettling.
As the son of a twice-exiled poet forced to clean toilets in Xinjiang, Ai, at an early age, became familiar with isolation and the fearsome power Communist officials could wield. His experience of living in remote places seems to have imbued much of his work with a rural simplicity. That simplicity, combined with Ai's ironic sense of humor (maybe influenced by a decade spent in New York), makes for a distinctive version of conceptual art, one both straightforward and complex—much like Ai's "inside-out" vessels with uniform exteriors concealing intricate interior patterns.
Despite the sophistication of their fabrication, pieces such as Ai's untitled pile of sunflower seeds and a pair of glossy porcelain "Watermelons," both from 2006, are nevertheless based on mere seeds, whether neatly amassed or contained—in the case of the melons, by Mother Nature. And they of course evoke themes of fertility and the cycle of life (evident on the grandest scale in Ai's design contribution to Beijing's Olympic National Stadium—his architectural elements resembling a bird's nest).
Speaking of themes, the notion of containment is central to Ai's work, and it assumes many forms. More than 1 million of the man-made sunflower seeds found in Dropping the Urn were contained within a hall at London's Tate Modern last October, perhaps alluding to Mao Zedong's image as the sun, his people like sunflowers turned toward his light. Furthermore, the seeds could reference a shift in collective thought in China—the power of activism resulting in a whole greater than the sum of its striated parts.
Amazingly, Ai is also a designer, writer, and prolific blogger (who was eventually shut down by the government; his censorship-evading Twitter feed is @aiwwenglish), and he's no stranger to obstacles. After attending the Beijing Film Academy in the '70s, he joined an experimental art group regularly censored by Chinese authorities. He moved to the U.S. in the early '80s and protested the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre from afar. Following his return to China in 1993, Ai began creating art that, among other things, calls attention to political corruption and irresponsibility.
Although works in the KMA show do not refer to specific incidents and heinous behavior by officials (as did Ai's installation of thousands of schoolchildren's backpacks memorializing lives needlessly lost in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake), some museum-goers will no doubt find them disturbing. For instance, a photographic triptych that documents Ai destroying a priceless Han Dynasty urn possibly dating to 206 B.C.E. might be perceived as a flippant gesture. After all, national boundaries tend to blur when it comes to ancient objects, and their "defilement" by any one individual seems criminal. But I see Ai's performance piece as less an act of defiance than a statement about the erasure of cultural history and the disregard for humanity that negation reflects. It also illustrates how swiftly the past can be (literally) crushed to usher in a new order.
Dropping the Urn includes a video presentation showing Ai methodically dipping Neolithic vases in garish industrial paint colors. A different kind of defacement of the same type of vessel can be seen in Ai's "Coca-Cola Vase" from 1997. Reminiscent of works by Ai's hero, Marcel Duchamp (the father of "readymades" who, incidentally, dated my grandmother), it could be compared to the infamous mustachioed and goateed "L.H.O.O.Q.," a photograph of the Mona Lisa altered by Duchamp in 1919.
The KMA's comprehensive gallery guide quotes Ai as saying, "To have other layers of color and images above the precious one calls into question both [the] identity and authenticity of the objects. It makes both conditions non-absolute… what appears on the surface is not supposed to be, but it's there."
Unlike his father, Ai has managed to be an artist-enemy of Chinese authorities without facing extreme consequences. That is, until his arrest at the Beijing airport on April 3. Despite Ai's fame, which has put his confinement in the international spotlight and prompted worldwide protest, his detainment continues. His wife saw him for the first time less than two weeks ago, on May 15, and for only 20 minutes in a location she's unable to identify. The artist has become like his Song Dynasty male figure imprisoned within an empty Johnnie Walker bottle (an untitled work from 1993)—a piece that somehow represents isolation, impairment, and despair in one fell swoop.
His whereabouts still unknown, Ai represents something else: a catalyst for global awareness of human-rights issues. It's an absolute shame that unlike some catalysts, Ai cannot remain unaltered by outside forces.