Contemporary art is the greatest example of exploitation our generation will see. A movement that continues to underpay workers, overpay artists and go so much further is damaging to society. For the sake of making a point or sometimes even just to make money, art becomes damaging to all those involved in it. Should modern art be stopped before the damage is irreversible? Whether it’s a plain, reductive piece selling for millions or an appropriation heralded as one of the greatest pieces of contemporary art, artists are toying with art communities around them. Damien Hirst exemplifies this when in 2007 he created an artwork For the Love of God studded with jewels valued over $100 million, capitalising on the gullibility of buyers. In contrast, Ai Weiwei boasts a very different kind of exploitation: appropriation, boasting many works pilfered from cultural wells spanning far greater than his own existence. Ai Weiwei’s Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn from 1995 is a manifestation of this. Stealing prominent symbols from a rich historic period in China’s history to create a single piece of art himself. Contemporary art is the greatest example of exploitation our generation will see.
Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn is a most overt example of appropriation, where Weiwei takes a work of classical high art, applies a basic idea and makes it his own through destruction. The work is a triptych of three photographs of Weiwei in the process of destroying a Han Dynasty Urn that dates to about 100BCE, the resulting triptych of Weiwei’s is not incredible in composition or style but only in subject matter. The fact that the urn was a genuine, 2100-year-old artefact from a period so definitive in China’s history and rich in culture does affect the depth of the finished art, making his meaning a “devastating satire on the modern world’s alienation from the past” as Jonathon Jones of the Guardian puts it, the honesty of the art emphasising a disconnection and radical diversion from times past.
When impersonators appear (notably like Uli Sigg – a collector who holds Weiwei in high esteem, actually using a central piece of his own collection in his copycat artwork) destroy iconic wares it reinforces the notion of replicability, and adds another layer of exploitation. Sigg – a collector – destroyed Weiwei’s Coca-Cola urn for artist Manuel Salvisberg. The photographs resulting are not too different from Weiwei’s iconic images, adding no variation upon what was once an interesting trick; forming grounds for a reasonable legal case from Weiwei pursuing the destruction of Weiwei’s work: a case which almost came to fruition. ArtAsiaPacific writer Alfred Jarry writes that this replicant brings into question the original piece, about consent for reuse and the entire validity of appropriation in contemporary art. Weiwei had no way to obtain permission from the creator of his urn outside of purchase and ownership of it, no permission from the culture he appropriated or permission from even the collector he bought the urn from – undermining the entire process of his destruction and further outcry once his art had been replicated – indicating that Weiwei must be as much of a fraud in his own work here as Salvisberg in his duplicate. This inability to create permeates other works of Weiwei’s like Forever, 2003. Forever is a large installation piece manufactured by hundreds of factory workers out of real bicycle parts, the individual designs of bicycles belonging to Forever, a Chinese bicycle company.
Appropriation is the concept underlying Weiwei’s work here and continues on in many of his other works but he also capitalises on the profitability of the art market. He exploits gullible buyers with works not aimed to spread his message or promote his ideas but to make money from these gullible buyers. Art is traditionally valued on the reputation of the artist, the cost of the materials, the cultural context and the individual meaning and quality of the work itself. Weiwei is aiming with Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn to exploit the market by adding an acquired cultural context, ramping up the cost of materials and not investing himself into the actual quality of the work itself. In this way, he is exploiting the contemporary art market to profit himself.
One might argue that he is using contemporary art to subvert his government and his nation. Weiwei comes from a period of Communism and Authoritarianism where every move that might be subversive was tracked and followed and this work of subversion was capitalising on this attack on freedom. Weiwei comes from a time of hardship and misery in which he was exploited to create this work, actually at one point using a quote from Mao – “General Mao used to tell us that we can only build a new world if we destroy the old one” – to justify his work Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn. Positioning himself on the side of the people he had been exploited by – even satirically – adds a level of depth and hypocrisy to the work that removes a lot of genuinity and power from the points that he is trying to make. His attempt to subvert his government is justified but not well-executed – his attempt inspires both criticism of him and indirectly his government, destroying a piece of defining Chinese culture.
Collectively, Ai Weiwei manipulates his audience by appropriating work and destroying an element of an incredibly rich culture which he is also forcing himself into. Weiwei exploits the ancestors of a nation still rich with culture, vast swathes of China fortified or defined by a period symbolised in the very element he destroys, making his art – contemporary art – some of the most exploitative art in history and the greatest exploitation our generation will see. Weiwei has used exploitative means to reach an important communicative end. Contemporary art was leverage into the forefronts of people’s minds and into conversations on an important topic.
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