Sunday, March 9, 2014

What is it with breaking pots?

"Colored Vases"
I know I'm coming late to commenting on the issue of Ai WeiWei's painted Han dynasty pots. This needed to percolate for a while in my brain. 

WeiWei set up an exhibit with three huge photos of himself holding and then dropping a pot dating to 200BC. In front of these photos was a collection of the same pots painted with industrial paint in garish colors. Maximo Caminero, a local artist, grabbed one of those pots and did as in the photos, dropping it to the floor and breaking it to protest, he said, the fact that the gallery in question did not feature local artists. He later said that he thought it was an interactive display and he was simply mimicking the photos of WeiWei, and was very sorry when told that the broken pot was worth $1 million and that he could face up to 5 years in jail.

I am appalled, not at Caminero, but at WeiWei. After all, Caminero only compounded WeiWei's initial desecration and, if he's to be believed, was only participating in WeiWei's installation. WeiWei's aim was to contrast East and West and highlight consumerism. The pots in questions, while being actual antiquities (from the Neolithic era), are the property of WeiWei and presumably he should be able to do what he wants to with his private property. According to an article in the South China Morning Post (2/18/14), WeiWei made a difference between "smash[ing] his own belongings" and having someone else destroy them. Indeed, WeiWei has been smashing antiquities for a long time and his lawyer has criticized archaeological preservationists for their reaction to these destructions when they fail to protest the Chinese government's treatment of WeiWei, a person.

Yoko Ono and the vase
Yet, these pots are a legacy of the past and whoever owns them, be it a private individual, an educational institution or a national government, ought to preserve them for all of us.

This event brought to mind Yoko Ono's 1966 performance at the Jeanette Cochrane Theatre in London where she broke a vase on the stage and asked people to pick up the pieces and take them home, promising that they would all meet again in 10 years time with the pieces and put the vase together again (I don't think that ever happened).

Which makes me ask: What is it with breaking pots? Do performance artists ever destroy paintings or sculptures as part of their act? 

I don't usually comment about things like this because, not having an art degree, I sometimes think that I just don't get it. But maybe I do get it: Pots are just pots, utilitarian items, and there are many more where those came from. No one is outraged at the destruction of pottery as they would be if someone slashed an ancient painting. So it's easy to destroy pots as part of a gimmick to call attention to yourself, whether you're Yoko Ono, Ai WeiWei or Maximo Caminero.

So, in the end, I'm still appalled and saddened that we can't protect these antiquities so that they will still be available to our grandchildren and their children, but then again, we seem unable to protect the planet so maybe one Han dynasty pot is insignificant.

Chibcha pot
A couple of disclaimers that shed some light on my feelings about this: Some museums have more pottery than they are able to display and they often sell some as a means to finance their research and conservation efforts. When I was in my early 20s, I bought an ancient Chibcha (Colombia) pot from one such outlet. I must admit that, although I loved that pot, it accidentally broke while in my care. The other disclaimer is that a few years ago I went to a private exhibit at the Freer Gallery in Washington, DC, where I was allowed to handle a pot similar to the ones that WeiWei destroyed for his exhibit. It was a very significant experience for me, as I held the pot and felt the grooves left by the hands of the ancient potter.


Tall Pines Pottery said...

wasn't there a rock band that destroyed guitars on stage years ago?

It is easy to destroy what you did not create.

It is a human pattern, not a good one.

pat's pottery said...

The WeiWei exhibit was here in Miami, and it was on the news for a week. I was rooting for the smasher, has I had been, and still am, appalled at WeiWei smashing and painting those pots.

sheilasart said...

Gracie, very well said and thought out. I don't think one needs to have an art degree to see the absurdness of this event. It's about having respect for those that have gone before us and respect for those not yet born. I know the artist was trying to prove a point but in the end (I think) this kind of act was for the shock effect... I'm tired of being "shocked", life has enough of that organically w/out conjuring it up on purpose.

Andi said...

For Alexa's bridal shower, I combed through local thrift shops to find enough different cup/saucer sets for each guest to pick one and use it at the tea party, then take it home as a favor. I ended up buying way more than we needed. Everyone ended up with their memento (I took a couple of sets for my collection). Then, since we didn't know what else to do with the leftovers, and since it seemed like a fun (traditional?) thing to do, at the wedding, all the guest smashed the cups and saucers. Are these less worthy of our concern because they were not "art," but rather, something that had already been discarded by someone else?

And what is it about breaking pottery? Isn't it a Greek wedding custom? Also, a Jewish custom to break a glass?

Graciela Testa Lynt said...

Wow! Lots to think about. Andi and Peggy: we break lots of things "ceremoniously". I think that, for me, the issue is that these pots survived for so long to meet such a sad end. And I admit that I place more value on handmade artisanal items than on industrial products.