Dropping a Han-Dynasty Urn, 1995, Triptych, C-prints, each 150 x 166 cm © Ai Weiwei
This summer, our family vacation centered around visiting Ai Weiwei’s Dropping the Urn (Ceramic Works, 5000 BCE – 2010 CE) exhibition at the Knoxville Museum of Art. Ai is the increasingly prominent Chinese artist and political activist whose open criticism of the Chinese government’s stance on democracy and human rights led to his arrest, detainment, and house arrest. (He hasn’t backed down, as this recent Newsweek piece attests.)
This was Ai’s first U.S. solo exhibition outside of New York City, and it’s one of the most provocative shows I have seen in a few years. As the museum explains, Ai “transforms ancient ceramic objects, including 7,000-year old Neolithic urns and Han dynasty vessels, by painting them with a ‘Coca-Cola’ logo, dipping them into vats of industrial paint, smashing them on the ground, or grinding them into powder.” These are some powerful questions about authenticity and value.
Along the way, we stopped at Memphis’ Pink Palace Museum, an incredibly odd natural history collection focused on subjects like the South, dinosaurs, minerals, and the Civil War. This place must be seen to be believed. One of the most amazing objects on view: the Clyde Parke Circus Parade, an elaborate and intricate hand-carved automaton featuring an audience of 1,500 people. It took 30 years to create.
The view from a YouTube user’s camera: