Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn

Collected Works: Art


Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn

by Ai Weiwei

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Ai Weiwei stares straight-faced at the camera, his digits splayed as an urn falls to the floor. Were it not for his evident indifference, he might have appeared taken aback by an act of clumsiness, pardoning his butterfingers. Instead, it is clear that the move was a deliberate one. As the object levitates beneath his outstretched hands, we imagine him keeping it magically afloat, or holding the invisible strings of a pottery puppet. Only the smoke and mirrors of photography prevent the urn from plummeting further.

This is the second of three discrete stages: before, during, after. As the present tense of the title suggests, it acts as the triptych’s centre of gravity. In this anchoring image, the falling vase is not blurred but crisp and intact, preserved on the brink of destruction. Our minds fill in the gaps, producing a continuous narrative where one may never have existed. The shot represents a technical feat, its difficulty testified to by a failed first attempt: two urns were smashed in the making of this work.

Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn is driven by the tension between commercialisation and historic conservation, and the work certainly provides ample fuel for debate. The value of the images quickly exceeded that of the original object: does this justify the demolition, or render it all the more provocative? In any case, the irony cannot go unnoticed. Ai’s destruction of the historical artefact increased its exposure more than traditional forms of preservation would ever have done.

Manuel Salvisberg followed suit with a sequel of sorts, a triptych of his own. The object broken was Ai’s Coca-Cola Urn, another priceless urn painted with a soft drinks logo. Reactions were polarised. Some considered Salvisberg’s actions a logical extension of Ai’s, but others were unimpressed. Either way, the disputes that the work prompted prove it to be a suitable continuation of the original work’s legacy. It keeps Ai’s raised questions hovering, preventing them from falling to form a final full stop.

Words by Elizabeth Brown & John Wadsworth

More to discover

Read more about Ai Weiwei on The Royal Academy of Arts site. Manuel Salvisberg's response, Fragments of History, can be viewed here. Monica Tan has interviewed Ai for The Guardian, as has Alastair Sooke for The Telegraph.

Chin-Chin Yap has written about Ai and 'devastating history' for ArtAsiaPacific. Ben Mauk has written about another urn-smashing incident for The New Yorker. Malcolm Harris has written about Ai's US reception for The New Inquiry.

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