Chinese contemporary art has risen like a red rocket over the past decade; it’s in every gallery, biennale and forward-looking retrospective. The number of artists being promoted is rather small, many of them in and around a nucleus linked to Shanghai, Lorenz Helbling’s Shanghart gallery and the former swiss ambassador to China, Uli Sigg. This Swiss-China connection also ties the architects Herzog and de Meuron to another chinese artist/architect, Ai Wei Wei, and it is in a documentary on their common project for the 2008 Olympics, the “Bird’s nest” stadium, that I first heard of him, in an architectural context.
In 2009, Munich’s “Haus der Kunst” organized a huge show of his works (www.hausderkunst.de/hdk.de/index.php), almost all of them on a monumental scale. The show is very impressive, and many of Ai Wei Wei’s questions and reflections are thought-provoking (the catalog is an excellent compilation of these), but there is an undercurrent in the exhibition and the works that is deeply disconcerting: a large fraction of the materials used in the art works stem from antique buildings, furniture or excavations. There is the room in which beams from Qing dynasty buildings transperse tables and chairs from the same epoch, the room in which the tables are destroyed and reconstructed in other geometries, with the coy comment that the materials are those used by fakers of antiques (are the tables thus ‘real’ antiques, or only modern reproductions?) and then finally a series of works using antique or neolithic ceramics. One striking image is that of ancient urns, dipped in industrial paint, which emphasizes their great stylistic simplicity and makes then wholy contemporary on one hand, but on the other hand destroys them as surely as if they had been ground to dust (another work of his).
Why am I so shocked by this destruction, that is for me an act of cultural vandalism not entirely different from what was done in the Cultural Revolution? What would the reaction be if I were to take roman murals and paint a Ronald McDonald amid the gladiators? To break off the legs of a Mesopotamian statue and replace them with yellow webbed duck feet? The antiques are irrevocably destroyed. Even if the paint that Ai Wei Wei applies might be removable with industrial solvents, whatever information the ceramic vessels contain (foodstuffs, composition, origin) is lost. Can it be argued that there are such vast amounts of antiques in the world that a few might justifiably be destroyed to make an artistic statement? But to do so is to make a decision for the future: that there is no conceivable use or study of these ancient artefacts that will require more of them than we consider necessary at this point in time. And that is just the utilitarian argument. An analogous question is the following: what is the loss to humanity of a species going extinct that we did not know existed? Or of a small number of individuals in an endangered species dying? Or of a language dying out with its last speaker?
On the flip side: should all objects from the past be preserved? Up to when? 1000 years ago? 100? Last week? The danger down *that* path is a mumification of the past, the impossibility of renewal and Disneyfied quaint little towns generating tourist income and little more.
And as a final twist on these considerations: through this exhibition, Ai Wei Wei appears to have helped conserve the very techniques that were used to build some of the objects centuries ago, and that might have gone extinct without his patronage.
Michael Doser is part of the Prix-Jury 2012 and is judge in the category [the next idea]Voest Alpine Art and Technology Grant. He’s holding a keynote about “Higgs, where are you?” at the Deep Space in the Ars Electronica Center.