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June 10, 2012


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This is a brilliant post, illuminating about both Heidegger and Ai Weiwei. I think you were right to focus on (one aspect of) Ai's art practice and not to muddy the waters with discussion of his courageous and often witty political activities.

But then on second thought I wonder if these two spheres are separable (as I also wonder whether Heidegger's philosophy can be detached from his political blunders).

I love this comparison, which also makes me reflect on the Buddhist perspective on thingness and emptiness (as in emptiness of self-nature). Things and the thingness of things were always what I found most interesting and valuable in Heidegger's work. I wrote my thesis on Kant and Madhyamaka, but after reading this I'm thinking it would have been more productive to learn more about Heidegger!
Also, I think what Ai Weiwei is really doing is making a scathing critique of modern Chinese society, about how they value modern brands and crap culture rather than appreciating their ancient traditional culture represented by the antique vase. That culture is rendered dead by being perceived as worthless. It's a social commentary rather than a political one in my opinion.

Chelsea Hall is probably right in her reading of Ai's destruction of the antique vases, but that other readings seem equally likely and equally interesting (a critique of the fetishization of objects in general, for example)suggests to me that Ai's broken vases are among the rare conceptual art pieces that actually employ concepts worth thinking about for more longer than the initial,"well, that's kind of cute" that so many of these works elicit.

David, I really agree that the concepts his work evokes is something worth thinking about... and following Heidegger's argument, it doesn't matter how the artist intended to create the work (or how it relates to his other activities) because works of art have lives of their own and can function (when an art work is really working) to articulate and illuminate particular ontological realities (this below is from Dreyfus' draft essay linked just above)

Heidegger is not interested in works of art as expressions of the vision of a creator, nor is he interested in them as the source of aesthetic experiences in a viewer. He holds that “Modern subjectivism … immediately misinterprets creation, taking it as the selfsovereign subject’s performance of genius.” and he also insists that “aesthetic experience is the element in which art dies.” Rather, for Heidegger, an artwork is a thing that, when it works, performs at least one of three ontological functions. It either
manifests, articulates or reconfigures the style of a culture from within the world of that culture.

Takin this up, then, I think Ai's art maybe is speaking to something beyond society or politics to the very "being" of the culture itself. Chelsea says Chinese culture and that must be true and yet I have myself felt a deep critique of American modes of being in his work--like Chelsea said, the de-valuing of craftsmanship and sustainability in favor of the cheap and efficient; and maybe that is not at all what the artist had in mind, but for me his work, dust to dust, was as illuminating as anything I have ever seen of the unravelling of traditional cultural and familial values--like Ting-Jen said, it just gives you shivers...

As to Heidegger's own colossal mis-jugements and mistakes... that is another issue. His philosophy lacked almost entirely ethical prescriptions beyond his ambiguous ideas about authenticity so his personal failings are less problematic I guess than if he was an ethical thinker but it is really bothersome that the greatest philosopher of the 20th century (which I insist he is!!) was such a total disaster as a human being...

Brilliant juxtaposition of Ai Weiwei and Hedieger. Sort of like Ai Weiwei's work itself. And by calling us back to the object and its destruction all the more poignant – dust to dust.

Not sure why people think it necessary to make blanket comments on conceptual art. Seems to me that most interesting art has always had a strong conceptual edge, certainly at times when cultures are going through a phase shift. I can’t imagine my own work without Duchamp. Can’t even imagine trying to imagine the worlds I try to live in.

"they are after all just lumps of clay" or strings of bits, or mud smeared on canvas ... I find the forms of the objects compelling and have always liked pots because of the tensions with use and the openness of their forms. I don’t think the dependence on stories is as simple as this comment suggests.

(Is it intentional that the time stamp on the comments is GMT?)

Hi Steven,

Two quick responses:
1) I cannot speak about people make blanket sttaements about conceptual art, but I do think it is perfectly valid to state one's aethsthic preferences. I tend to be less interested in conceptual art but that is because the aestheic formal aspect of art is just more interesting to me. That is particularly so for the reasons David mentioned above that often the intellectual concept is not all that engaging in the first place (and last place)...I was watching a BBC show on Beauty and an artist was discussing the way craftsmanship is no longer prioritized in the culture and he said, with so much art today, the artist could verbally explain the entire thing and be done. He had a good point (not that that is the whole story) but I do really love going to the Getty and just being surrounded by beauty and craftmanship. And no, I don't find Ai's work is beautiful or crafted in any way--so at first I dismissed him as uninteresting (personal opinion). But, re-reading Heidegger and attempting to engage the ideas behind certain possible concepts (interpretations of which) I now think he is perhaps one of the most important artists alive for the reasons above. Or put it this way, I see why he was a strong contender last year for Person of the Year--his work is somehow of deep interest to society and people today...?
2) the other thing was I think that statement about stories was about works of art in museums. I like pots too but there is a reason why pots are considered the highest form of art in japan and are not quite so exalted here in the US, for example.. remember this was supposed to be a Heideggerean take on art and so the story as connected to culture and style will just have to take center stage...for the discussion at least... though I see what you mean and agree. I think I mentioned to you that I once met a really interesting anthropologist in Japan and he told me that the invention of the vessel prolonged human life by at least ten years--not many inventions can have a claim to fame like that!!

Super post. Three comments:
If you take that Heidegger quote and substitute "person" for "jug" and "parents" for "potter", you have a paraphrase of the Buddha or Thich Nhat Hanh.
The Vase photographs reminded me of Huang Yong Ping's art:
Also, the links to the Ai portraits made me laugh. Hopefully I won't have to explain to someone else in the office what I was laughing at.
Chris Censullo

Hi Chris,

So glad to hear from you!!!I guess the translation of "void" is problematic. I don't read German and don't know what the original conveyed, but because heidegger was talking about the highly conntextualized understanding of function versus Platonic ideal form of the vase, I guess "void" is a real problem in terms of translation. This really gets back to what Ting-Jen said on facebook:

How can the functioning even exist without the form, or the shaping of the form/void? Laozi's "where there is nothing, there is functioning" should also be "where there is functioning, there is nothing." It is all oneness, not a competition. It is inclusivity, not exclusivity. How can one exist without the other? Why should one exist without the other?

That is precisely the point and I think the juxtaposition was never form verus void, but rather form (platonic ideal) versus function (as meaning).

So, in that sense, I don't think this is particularly Buddhist. I am re-reading Francois Julien's book on the Great Form and he explains "void" in terms of 間 which is betweenness. Form therefore requires the empiness and emptiness requires the form and it is the betweeness of these two wherein lies the jug's meanining (ie function of holding and receiving).

Anyway, that is my two cents.... Oh, I LOVED the Huang piece. I didn't tag you but the Jin Shangyi painting I posted earlier was for you. I think it is really interesting in the same way. Wonder what you thought of it?

Thanks again for your comment!!!!

Sure on can (even should) be aware of and state ones preferences. In part to know and let others know ones blind spots. I find art that is not deeply conceptual dull. Pots are concepts for me, and I spend a lot of time holding them, tasting them (and from them), and accidentally breaking them (I am pretty clumsy). And many pieces of conceptual art also very polished wosedrks of craftwork - with the craft often hidden. Ai Weiwei works a great deal with craft people. This may raise questions of 'authenticity' - if the artist does not make the work herself but only conceptualizes, sketches and directs does this somehow diminish the art? Not for me. I like mixed processes and confused agendas. I live in them all the time anyway. And I am most moved by art that integrates thought (abstract thought), body, emotions and friends.

You are right and I know better: my Mad Libs game with the Heidegger quote was too easy. My poor knowledge of languages and translation leads me to get caught up in the emotion I attach to the words, rather than looking at the language objectively. It could be good copy for a Hallmark card, though.

The painting I recognized from the Jullien book. (On a side note, I purchased it after reading about it on your blog awhile ago. It was since passed on to my favorite local artist named Mark Brown, who enjoyed it. You can see his work here: www.markbrownpaintings.com).

That Jin Shangyi painting, the dipping of ancient vases in cheap modern paint, both bring to mind the "reclamation" art of Micheal Lucero. Maybe something links them, maybe not; I'm just throwing it out there.


Steven, I am with you!!! I think, it's not that artists working with craftspeople that is the issue since in the renaissance too, works of art were produced by workshops... but rather that conceptual art lives and dies by their concepts. So, if the concept is not super engaging then what are you left with? I say that thinking of Damien Hirst—who is to be sure tremendously popular. Compare, for example, Dust to Dust to a Renaissance altar painting--one doesn't have to engage in the philosophy at all to stand before it totally in awe..whereas with the ikea jars, there is little in terms of formal beauty and craftsmanship and one really is left with basically just the concepts themselves. If you haven’t read it yet, Seven days in the Art World was really fun to read!!

Chris, I loved Mark Brown' work--I fell totally in love with Angkor!! It is amazing....Michael Lucero's work reminded me a little of Katsura Funakoshi's Sphinxes... have you seen those? Did you like Jullien's book? I really loved it... more soon!!

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