Art History: Ai Weiwei’s Dropping a Han-dynasty Urn (1995) and the fictions of history
Ai Weiwei’s Dropping a Han-dynasty Urn (1995) and the fictions of history
Why have so many contemporary Chinese artists used porcelain in their work? One answer to this question, central to the artistic and object lives narrated in New Export China: Translations Across Time and Place in Contemporary Chinese Porcelain Art (2023), lies in the long historical pedigree of this high-fired ceramic as a globally desired product of Chinese kilns. Rather than uncritically perpetuating or rejecting the authority of this history, however, the artists featured in New Export China use porcelain to uncover slippages between fact and fiction, undermining entrenched assumptions and ideals by emphasising the transient, contingent, and prosaic. Ai Weiwei was among the first Chinese contemporary artists to apply a conceptual sensibility to the ancient art of ceramics, and he remains one of the most widely known, while his Dropping a Han-dynasty Urn (1995) is undoubtedly the most acclaimed example of “New Export China”. The specific historical circumstances in which Ai created this work, however, and the critique of history as a model for understanding the past that it implies, despite or perhaps because of the artist’s global fame remain widely underacknowledged.
Alex Burchmore is an art historian specialising in the study of Chinese art, past and present, with a broader focus on travel and mobility, trade and exchange, and the intersection of the personal and material. He received his PhD from the Australian National University in 2019 and joined the University of Sydney’s Museum & Heritage Studies department in 2021. His first book, New Export China: Translations Across Time and Place in Contemporary Chinese Porcelain Art (University of California Press, 2023), traces the many ways that artists in China have used porcelain to shape their visions of personal and cultural identity.
Venue: In Person and on Zoom
Schaeffer Library Seminar Room 210, Mills Building (A26)
Zoom Link: https://bit.ly/arht-s2-2023
Image caption: Ai Weiwei, Dropping a Han-dynasty Urn, 1995, gelatin silver photograph, triptych, 148 × 121 cm each. Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio.