He really grabbed my attention when he dropped the Han dynasty urn. Before that, I guess I didn't think much about Ai Weiwei. I am not a huge fan of conceptual art, and I had thought that Ai Weiwei takes conceptual art too far into the realm of the uber-personal; the uber-narcissistic. It just isn't my cuppa tea and yet... I must admit, I found the photographs of him smashing the antique urns to be utterly arresting. And so I lingered there...
Ai was, in fact, smashing his urns right about the time I was reading later Heidegger with Burt Dreyfus at Berkeley. Heidegger's Poetry, Language, Thought was a book that profoundly changed the way I looked at the world, and his essay, "The Thing" (Das Ding), was one of the most interesting to me. Even twenty years later, Dreyfus' lecture on the essay remains vivid in my mind.
Illuminating what is the "thingness of things," Heidegger holds up the potter’s vessel as an example of Das Ding --and the way "things thing". He suggested that all civilizations began using clay (earth) to pro-duce and bring forth vessels. But it is not the form of the vessel, but rather within its function in which being can be understood.
A vase is a thing which is able "to hold" and "to receive" --and hence its essence is in its void:
The emptiness, the void, is what does the vessel’s holding. The empty space, this nothing of the jug, is what the jug is as the holding vessel. … But if the holding is done by the jug’s void, then the potter who forms sides and bottom on his wheel does not, strictly speaking, make the jug. He only shapes the clay. No – he shapes the void. … The vessel’s thingness does not lie at all in the material of which it consists, but in the void that hold.
Ai wouldn't have had to read Heidegger either, since 2000 years before Heidegger, Laozi said much the same thing when he identified the essence of the vase not in its form but in its function:
Fashion earth to make a vase from it: where there is nothing, there is functioning -use of the vase.
Ai Weiwei made a name for himself selling photographs of himself dropping valuable jars from the Han dynasty. Needless to say, antiquities collectors did not appreciate his activities. The critics, however, did --and they praised him for his iconoclastic sentiment, which they said “questions authenticity and value" (This is vis-à-vis the artist's own comment that the value of his photographs, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, has today exceeded that of the once-prized urn itself).
What would Heidegger have said about all this? Well, interestingly, Heidegger traces the German word for "thing" back to its original meaning of "to gather;" so that a thing can be said to gather meaning in the style of its shared understanding of function and use.
So, then what is Ai trying to do? If the meaning of the vase is in its void, by shattering the vase, is he not undermining its very being? Or maybe that is his point.
While not my cuppa tea, Ai gets more and more interesting.... for in addition to smashing old antique vases, Ai also took Tang dynasty urns and painted coca-cola logos on them or dipped them in cheap industrial paints in garish colors. Working in this manner, he transformed their traditional meaning and value as historical artifact turning them into contemporary fine art. And he does this basically by removing their historical value and treating them merely as a valueless materials for his contemporary fine art works.
Vandalism? --Or Homeric destiny?
Heidegger insisted that the way works of art "work" is to articulate and illuminate the underlying understanding of being of a particular culture orworldview; and that this is the function of art--to reflect back to us our understanding of being (lichtung). And with that in mind, it was Ai Weiwei's final project with vases that really made an impression on me.
Called Dust to Dust, in this series, Ai took neolithic-age pottery and ground the ancient pots to dust. And then, recalling the way human remains were stored in funerary jars, Ai puts the dust of these old pots inside clear glass jars from Ikea--like someone keeping the remains of their parents in an old funerary jar in their garage, it somehow speaks so sadly about cultural and familial values unravelling (the ikea jars even standing as a strong symbol for the leveling tendancies of globalization where, Everything gets lumped together into uniform distancelessness).
Jars, of course, have always stood at the crossroads of human life and death-- so this all really works, doesn't it? It is stimulating, though provoking and in much the way Heidegger demanded, his jars light up something very significant about the culture from which the art was born.
Ashes to ashes and dust to dust: one cannot help to wonder--if Heidegger is right-- about what is says about the culture it is supposed to be reflecting? Neither personal nor narcissitic, I now think he might be one of the great artists of our time: Ai Weiwei.