In 1995, Ai Weiwei held up an ancient Chinese ceramic vessel, opened his arms to let go of it, and stood there as it shattered. Its new craft and forgery exhibit includes a recent remake of Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn in Lego. It’s impressive how the black, white and gray Lego bricks create dark Warholian images of the three-step artist to smash a masterpiece.
I feel compelled to explain myself. But I really can’t. I’m not sure what’s smart about destroying an archaeological treasure – the Han dynasty ruled China when the Roman Empire ruled Europe – so I’ll quote the guide instead exhibition: “the transformative act” of destroying a 2,000 year old work. of art (turning it into tiny little pieces, I guess) “brought attention to the Chinese government’s widespread destruction of the country’s heritage”.
And there you have it, in a nutshell: a presentation of sometimes amusing but superficial art that we are asked to appreciate as “important” because of the artist’s unquestionably heroic political acts. Ai Weiwei is a true free speech hero, braver than most of us will ever be and, in his tireless campaign for refugees, compassionate too. I deeply admire him. But this exhibition made me seriously doubt that he is a good artist.
The problem with his new version of Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn is that he wants to have his cake and smash it. The so-called critical point of the campaign is the opposite of what it actually makes us feel. Seeing him break an urn, we laugh. We don’t think about the erosion of Chinese heritage. Instead, we like to see it happen before our eyes. And remaking the original photographs in Lego only accentuates this celebration of irony, of freedom, of the disposable modern world.
I even think it’s an overread. The gesture is – literally – disposable. Because on this show, it sometimes seems like Ai Weiwei is better at tossing concepts up in the air than clarifying what he means by them, as they crash to earth.
The Lego shares a gallery with old-fashioned wood-framed display cases containing a collection of ancient art from China that Ai Weiwei purchased in 2020. It’s a mix of styles and eras, including an image buckled with a crouching hare in red sandstone and a sensual Buddha in broken limestone. The artist claims that at least five of these seemingly consecrated sculptures are modern forgeries. For counterfeiting activity is so sophisticated in contemporary China that it transforms historical records.
The gallery points to the “fakes”. For what it’s worth, I think they look dodgy. Their surfaces are cleaner and sharper. The signs of age seem artificial. But maybe Ai Weiwei is playing with my mind, presenting the real as fake, the fake as real.
If only I cared. The myth of authenticity, the fascination of the fake – this is the small change of postmodernism that has been around for decades now. Like breaking a Han urn, mixing real and fake ancient Chinese art prevents any chance, as a Westerner, of responding aesthetically to this art. We live in an entire world of inauthentic replicas. It’s not at all daring or memorable to point this out, again.
At least when Damien Hirst celebrates the inauthentic, he does so on a colossal scale in his epic, tacky museum of fake treasures, The Wreck of the Unbelievable. But I suspect Kettle’s Yard, pretentious and cozy, wouldn’t touch Damien with a surgical glove at the end of a bargepole. This exhibition is boring because his desire to provoke is constantly dampened by an insistence on the moral excellence of Ai Weiwei.
I can’t believe Ai Weiwei put his name on a set of blue and white porcelain plates with childish paintings of refugees on them. A helicopter buzzing a crowd! A crowded boat – painted on a porcelain plate! It’s the kind of cheap and easy “gesture” I’d expect from Grayson Perry. While that might be unfair — at least Perry craves satire. These well-meaning trays are just cutesy and sentimental. I feel offended to see my distress over the treatment of refugees flattered in this way.
A sad possibility is that Ai Weiwei now has the same problem as dissident writers who fled communist Europe in the 1970s or 1980s. The true meaning and power of his art lies in the courage of his opposition to the Chinese dictatorial state. In exile, he is adrift. Some of the art here blurs its previously clear stance for freedom by implying that democracy is just as unfree as a totalitarian state. Surveillance Camera and Plinth is a marble replica of a security camera – it can be anywhere from Beijing to downtown Cambridge. But the meaning of these objects surely depends on how, why and where they are used.
Either way, the marble is overdone and artistically heavy. There are other everyday objects imitated in stone – a marble toilet roll, a jade sex toy and a smartphone. Funny for a moment, but then what? Their meanings remain in the shallow end. Marcel Duchamp, more than a century ago, “chosen” objects from the world as ready-made art. His levity mocks Ai Weiwei’s stony gravity. Turning readymades into marble and jade is a heavy-handed way to make your point.
In another brilliant act of misuse of antiquity, he painted the Coca-Cola logo on a Han vase. It symbolizes this exhibition, which itself resembles the Cambridge cool outlet of a global brand. But the guy calls her, on a jade iPhone.