I was privileged to be one of 30 attendees at a performance Pull of the Moon on Friday (June 28, 2014) by Navajo artist Bert Benally and Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei. The performance was located in a remote private canyon in The Navajo Nation. Pull of the Moon is part of Navajo TIME (Temporary Installations Made for the Environment), a unique partnership between New Mexico Arts and the Navajo Nation Museum.
The event required the making of two sand drawings on the canyon floor. Benally’s dealt with creation stories told to him by the matriarchs who live in the canyon. Ai’s piece was a mandala of flat bicycles that extend his Forever Bicycles series, drawn in crushed porcelain sand. A full report on this event will appear in next week’s CFile. In advance of the event I posed several questions to Ai regarding the project. An excerpt from the interview (June 18, 2014 ) follows:
GC: In 2009, you said to Hans Ulrich Obrist in an interview that you “hated ceramics.” The full quote is: “I hate ceramics… Yes, ceramics is kind of crazy… but I do it. I think if you hate something too much, you have to do it. You have to use that.” Is that statement still true or is it false? You seem to have such passion for the medium, use it so frequently and care so much for its craftspeople in Jingdezhen that surely there must be some love as well?
AW: Ceramics, as a medium, is very sophisticated and complicated. For that reason, I don’t enjoy the process. With that being said, ceramics are the earliest high quality form of human expression. People have worked with ceramic processes since the Stone Age; throughout our history, people have had a great need to express themselves through this special material. That fascinates me and so I try to explore the extremes of this material, to see how far it can go. When you talk about limits, you take the existing condition as a ready-made and try to push it further or try to subvert it to reach another possibility.
GC: Why the choice of porcelain this time and not ground prehistoric wares as in Dust to Dust (2008.) I understand that sand and dust have different symbolism. But can you speak about that?
AW: Dust to Dust was made from Neolithic pottery, which is much softer, fired under 800 degrees, and the powder is a shade of brown, more like the dust of bricks or sand. The new work all comes from much harder porcelain made in Jingdezhen. The porcelain is fired at a higher temperature, at over 1300 degrees, and made from very high quality materials. To make this project unique, I used white porcelain, which will make a more vivid image and separate itself from previous works.
GC: I am sure you know that the Native lands are rich in ceramic shards. You can walk anywhere in the desert and you will inevitably kick up some shards, from different tribes and different periods. You included shards with your porcelain sand, was that so that they would be buried in the earth with those from the Native people?
AW: The shards were intentionally placed there as evidence of the powder’s origin. Before the porcelain dust idea, the original thought was to bring much older Chinese shards to be mixed with the shards belonging to the Native people. I think this is an interesting idea because we can only see ourselves, our past, through material evidence such as these shards. It is important to pass on to future generations where we are from and to give a glimpse of the mind and soul of the people living in that time.
GC: You get many requests to do projects and work in collaboration every month. What was it about Bert Benally and New Mexico Arts-funded TIME proposal that made you say yes?
AW: We get requests, daily, from different groups and organizations. This particular collaboration is very unique because I had lived in North America for twelve years and had Native American friends involved with pottery. I like projects that are set up in special conditions or that have a deeper significance. The Navajo people are quite spiritual and it will be interesting to share in this exchange of thoughts and ideas.
GC: Forever is the title for the same pattern of stainless steel bicycles at the Lisson Gallery in London shown in May. How is your use of this drawing for the Navajo project different to that of Lisson? Does the title “Project for TIME” have anything to do with Forever as a series?
AW: For “Project for TIME,” we used a motif from the Forever bicycle structure that we have been using in different locations, including the recent Lisson Gallery show. I think to use this motif in a drawing, on Navajo land, has a very different meaning. The bike form is a modern cultural symbol. At the same time, it is abstract in comparison to the Navajo’s original practice of drawing or mark making to express their own spiritual needs. For me to combine these two aspects, to use a new language, involves reinterpretation of both conditions: culture and spirituality in relation to modern industrial motifs.
Garth Clark is the Chief Editor of CFile.
Above image: Pull of the Moon, a collaboration between Navajo artist Bert Benally and Ai Weiwei at the Navajo Nation in New Mexico.
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