No other artist can inflame the media more successfully than Ai Weiwei. Over the weekend a man smashed one of the vases Ai had painted. Miami-based artist Maximo Caminero, who was named as a defendant in the case, allegedly told a police officer he smashed the vase as a protest against the Perez Art Museum Miami’s decision to only display international art.
The destruction took place on Sunday as the survey exhibition, Ai Weiwei: According to What?, was on show. For a while a video circulated showing the act taking place, but within a day all access to the footage had been blocked. Damage control was no doubt being implemented at least with regard to the Perez Museum’s reputation. But after a long search we did manage to find the footage courtesy of BBC-TV. Listening to the announcer’s jolly narration, as though it was a sports event, is worth the view.
The press fixated on two things. First, the irony of this destruction taking place in front of, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, a triptych of photographs showing Ai destroying an ancient vase. “I was at PAMM,” Caminero said, “and saw Ai Weiwei’s photos behind the vases where he drops an ancient Chinese vase and breaks it. And I saw it as a provocation by Weiwei to join him in an act of performance protest.”
Second, the press were obsessed by its purported value of $1 million. This fact is not true. It has also been wrongly described as one of the rarest vases in the world. It is actually, as far as antiquities go, a fairly common and relatively intensive pot produced in huge quantities in its day. Ai has many of these pots in his possession and replacing it will not be difficult.
The New York Times report rightly notes that a similar work, called Group of 9 Coloured Vases, consisting of Neolithic vases painted by Ai in 2007, sold at Sotheby’s in London in 2012 for $156,325, a price that included buyer’s premium. That makes the value closer to $17,399.
Ai was upset when told of the incident, arguing that it was not right to destroy someone else’s property. And, to be fair, all the pots Ai has broken or painted belonged to him. In no way does this justify Caminero’s act.
Caminero said he emulated Ai to protest on behalf of all the local artists in Miami that have never been shown in museums there. Miami’s museums and galleries have spent so many millions now on international artists without, in his view, giving any attention to local talent.
But what I find amusing is that Caminero had no idea the work had any value: “If you saw the vases on display and the way they were painted, there was no way one would think the artist had painted over an ancient artifact. Instead I thought it was a common clay pot like you would find at Home Depot, frankly.”
But the amusement is fleeting. Destroying works in museums- for whatever reason, no matter how sympathetic the purpose- simply ruins the museum-going experience for everyone. It raises insurance premiums, makes shows more costly to assemble, frightens away lenders and results in art being distanced from viewers. It is a lose-lose scenario for everyone, including Caminero who is facing charges that could result in a five year prison term. To his credit, Caminero did apologize to Ai and seemed genuinely contrite.
An interesting endnote is that this ties Ai’s Smashing a Han Dynasty Urn (1995/2009), even closer to a work it has similarities to, Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917). They are bookends to 20th century art. Both are iconic provocations, one challenges Modernism and the other Postmodernism. Both produced a major uproar. Both only exist as a photograph. Both lost their ceramic component (Ai by design and Duchamp’s when the original was thrown into the trash by photographer Stieglitz after he recorded it). Both have now provoked acts of destruction in public spaces.
In Duchamp’s case a limited edition reproduction he made of Fountain has resulted in several attacks, including public urination. These were all carried out by artists. The most notable was in 2008 by neo-Dadaist Pierre Pinoncelli, who attacked an edition with a small hammer at the Pompidou Center causing minor damage. Artists, it seems, pose the greatest risk to art in public spaces.
For Ai this is the second smashing of one of his artworks. In 2012, the Swiss artist Manuel Salvisberg created a photographic triptych called Fragments of History, which depicts collector Uli Sigg in an almost identical stance to Ai’s in Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn as he drops the famed Coca-Cola Urn that has long been one of the central pieces of his collection. Critic Chin-Chin Yap writes, “Fragments of History is perhaps an unprecedented instance of a collector’s deliberate destruction of a valuable object in the service of a brand-new artwork, and it also refers to a long tradition of appropriation and iconoclasm in which Ai himself is well-schooled.” The big difference in this case is that Sigg owned the work and, morals and ethics aside, could do what he liked with it. Ironies abound, flying though this story like jet-propelled shards.
Garth Clark is the Chief Editor of CFile and is currently working on a book on Ai Weiwei’s ceramics.
Above image: A still from a video purporting to show Maximo Caminero smashing one of Ai Weiwei’s pots at the Perez Art Museum Miami courtesy of WSB-TV.
BBC News: Ai Weiwei vase smashed in Florida protest.