Destroying art for art’s sake


Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei has had his work smashed by another artist without his permission but he has no grounds to object.
Destroying art for art’s sake
A Swiss artist has smashed a valuable Chinese contemporary art work in homage to its creator. Will the Chinese artist be upset? Not likely. He has form when it comes to destroying art and he got in first, smashing a Han dynasty urn worth thousands of dollars and making art out of the event. Destruction in the service of creation is a dangerous precedent as Chinese artist Ai Weiwei must have reflected again recently when Swiss artist Manuel Salvisberg destroyed Ai’s iconic work nicknamed Coca-Cola Urn. The work is a Han Dynasty urn originally crafted between 206 BCE and 9 CE which Ai painted with a Coca-Cola logo in 1994. It has become an iconic symbol of the clash between ancient culture and contemporary commercialism. Ai is perhaps even better known for another iconic and devastatingly challenging art work in which he had himself photographed smashing another Han dynasty urn. The urn was worth several thousand dollars and apparently Ai’s photographer missed the first shot so two urns were photographed in the making of the photographic triptych, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn. Not surprisingly both Ai’s urn works prompted outrage when he created them in the 1990s, destroying irreplaceable artefacts in the service of his own creations. The artist is also a human rights activist, as iconoclastic with political values as he is with ceramics. He has had major exhibitions in Europe and Japan but not in China where authorities consider him a dangerous dissident. But both the Coca-Cola Urn and Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn are now valuable contemporary artworks, worth far more than the original Han urns Ai sacrificed. Which is where Swiss artist Manuel Salvisberg and collector Uli Sigg comes in. Sigg is perhaps the world's most prominent collector of contemporary Chinese art and Coca Cola Urn is - or rather was - one of his most valuable pieces. Now Salvisberg has persuaded Sigg to smash Coca-Cola Urn in a stance directly imitative of the one Ai used in Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn. Salvisberg photographed the event and created a new art work, wittily entitled Fragments of History. Essayist Chin-Chin Yap describes Fragments of History as “perhaps an unprecedented instance of a collector’s deliberate destruction of a valuable object in the service of a brand-new artwork” raising powerful issues of the moral ownership of art. But Ai is already on the record saying China has “too much history” so he can hardly object to being turned into fragments. Prophetically, he told an interviewer a couple of years ago, ““My messages are temporary and shouldn’t be our permanent condition. And like the wind it will pass. We’ll have another wind coming.” Maybe that’s what gave Salvisberg the idea.

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