All posts in “Chinese art”

Object of the Week: Colored Vases

“An artist can only raise new questions and offer insight into social change after reflecting on the feelings of the time. I don’t see art as a highly aesthetic practice…Rather than thinking of my projects as art, they attempt to introduce a new condition, a new means of expression, or a new method of communicating. If these possibilities didn’t exist, I wouldn’t feel the need to be an artist.” –Ai Weiwei1

“At different times I’ve worked in different mediums. For me, the variation is not an artistic judgment, but a necessary choice. It’s just as normal to eat with chopsticks, as it is to eat with forks or hands. Different circumstances call for different tools. I try to express ideas with the most appropriate available materials and forms.” –Ai Weiwei2

“Making choices is how the artist comes to understand himself. These choices are correlated to one’s spiritual predicament, and the goal is a return to the self, the pursuit of spiritual values, and the summoning of spirits. These choices are inherently philosophical.” –Ai Weiwei3

Ai Weiwei is super active in the world of contemporary art, posting to his Instagram, posing as a drowned Syrian refugeedecorating Berlin’s Konzerthaus with 14,000 life jackets. Not all of the commentary about him is positive, and I’m sure that’s as he would like it. He’s stated in the past that he desires uneasiness; that he deliberately moves away from the self-indulgent comfort of creating things to use his skills or to get praise. He wants to think critically and to act on his convictions. He wants to unsettle and to motivate. Definitely from his own perspective, he is a conceptual artist, a political activist, and an advocate for self-discovery.

Ai’s art still depends—in a really essential way—on its visual impact. The striking visuals he’s able to concoct are the rhetoric he uses to promote his provocative agenda. He may not think of art as a “highly aesthetic practice,” but the work speaks for itself. Just think of his Sunflower Seeds. The work is less than compelling as a printed phrase: “One hundred million hand-sculpted, hand-painted porcelain beads, made to look like sunflower seeds.” As a realized artwork, it captivated people.

Ai thinks about the forms as a means to an end—his end is pointing others to self-consciousness, sparking in us a challenge to accepted systems of belief, provoking critical responses and inspiring action—but they’re still necessary means. They are his way of communicating. He can’t even be sure that his art will communicate what he wants it to do. All he can be sure of is that viewers will experience the physical artwork. Many of us who look at his works will come away with different conclusions; such is the open-endedness of art, politically-driven or otherwise. All we have is the thing, so I say, let’s look closely at it.

SAM’s one work by Ai Weiwei, Colored Vases, is on view at the Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park. It delivers what it promises. Nine ceramic vases are arranged in a pattern much like a bowling pin setup—there are three rows, with four vases in the back row, three in the middle row, and two in the front row—only the headpin is missing. The artist has applied a base coat of industrial paint in a bold hue—such as yellow, pink, lime green, or plum—to each vase. A second color in high contrast to the base layer covers the lips and shoulder of the vase, then drips down the body. Some vases have long drips like the tendrils of a plant, while others are shorter, like polychrome stalactites. The paint drips are irregular, and they seem natural.

Contrast is especially important to this work: there’s contrast between the traditional form of the ceramic vases and the bright and contemporary paint colors applied to them; contrast between the two colors on one vase, and contrast in the range of colors among the whole group; contrast between the normally grainy texture of a ceramic pot and the flatness of industrial paint. There’s probably contrast, too, between what Ai Weiwei thought of and what you take away.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Sources:

“Reconsidering Reality: An Interview with Ai Weiwei.” In Ai Weiwei: According to What? Edited by Deborah E. Horowitz. Prestel Verlag: Munich, London and New York, 2012. Published in conjunction with the exhibition of the same name, organized by the Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, in association with the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., and displayed at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C., October 7, 2012-February 24, 2013; the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis, Indiana, April 5-July 28, 2013; Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Ontario, August 31-October 27, 2013; Pérez Art Museum Miami, Miami, Florida, November 28, 2013-March 16, 2014; and Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York, April 18-August 10, 2014.

“Making Choices.” Translated by Philip Tinari, from The Grey Book, November, 1997. Reproduced in Ai Weiwei. Phaidon Press: New York, 2009.


i. According to What, 38
ii. According to What, 39
iii. Ai Weiwei, “Making Choices,” 128

Image: Colored Vases, 2010, Ai Weiwei (Chinese, born 1957), ceramic with industrial paint, approx. 17 x 22 in. each. Seattle Art Museum, Purchased with funds from the Estate of Robert M. Shields, 2013.33, Photo: Nathaniel Willson.
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Object of the Week: Qing Dynasty Robe

In the States, fashion seems like a primarily European product. Italian and French designers command the most respect here. Television and print ads cause us to marvel at how good folks look while just strolling the streets of Paris and Milan.

The Eurocentric focus of today’s fashion culture can make us forget that other cultures of lookin’ really good have existed all over the globe for thousands of years. Traditional China is one of those places where clothing communicates a lot about the wearer.

Qing Dynasty Robe

In this late Qing dynasty (1644-1912) robe at SAM, the wealth and style of the owner shines. The budding flora and curving tendrils of the embroidery blanket the surface of the robe, covering every inch of its fabric with beautiful, precise ornamentation. The sumptuous silk and embroidery in gold-wrapped thread tell us straight away that the owner of the robe was a person of means and importance. This rich purple hue has a visual impact recognized around the world, as in Europe, where, for a long, long time, purple has been the color most associated with royalty.

To be sure, the owner of the robe wanted respect as someone with high social status. History shows us that it’s a very human desire to show off, to draw attention to ourselves, and to set ourselves apart with luxury. That’s nothing new.

Qing Dynasty Robe

Interestingly, clothing in traditional China was also thought to express the internal state of the wearer. Symbols adorning the robe could convey positive traits and blessings of fortune on the person who donned them. Looking at this robe, the large white cuffs feature the shou character—a symbol for the Chinese blessing of longevity— directly at the center. The shou also signals this as a burial robe. Those Qing dynasty elites—always on fleek, even in the grave!

The robe is one of over 900 works that joined SAM’s collection around the 75th anniversary of the museum, an era when the collection grew significantly in size and importance. Come check it out soon at the Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Images: Robe, late 19th century, silk with gold embroidery, Chinese, Qing dynasty (1644-1912).
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Donate Legos to Ai Weiwei

We have a unique opportunity to help contemporary Chinese artist/dissident Ai Weiwei create commissioned artworks that will be a part of an Australian exhibition starting this month. How can we help him, you might be thinking? By sharing our LEGOs!

The Danish toy company LEGO refused Ai Weiwei Studio’s request for a bulk order of LEGOs to create artwork to be shown at the National Gallery of Victoria as “they cannot approve the use of Legos for political works.” This triggered a flood of responses on social media criticizing LEGO for “censorship and discrimination” by refusing Ai’s order. Since then, thousands of anonymous supporters have offered to donate their used LEGOs to Ai.

The tiny toy bricks Ai receives will be part of two works for an exhibition titled Andy Warhol / Ai Weiwei, which will explore the concept of freedom of speech and be on view through April 24, 2016 at the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia. According to The New York Times, one piece will re-envision his 1995 photo triptych “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn,” and the other will feature 20 LEGO portraits of Australian proponents of Internet freedom and human rights.

BMW Car LEGO Collection Point at the Asian Art Museum

To participate in this site-specific project and show our support, the Seattle Art Museum has signed up as an official Lego collection point for local and visiting art enthusiasts to drop LEGO bricks through the sunroofs of a secondhand BMW. Our collection point is parked right in front of the Asian Art Museum, and the roof will be open during museum open hours now through January 10, 2016.

Want to check out some of Weiwei’s work in person? Visit his installation Colored Vases, Ai’s first work acquired by the SAM, at the Asian Art Museum.

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Object of the Week: Gui

Imagine cooking up some morning oatmeal over the stove, and then using a ladle to serve it up from this 13th-century B.C. Chinese food vessel. Culture swag.

The form of the vessel is known as a gui, and it was developed in the Shang period (which lasted from roughly 1600 to about 1100 B.C.). At this time in Chinese history, the invention of bronze casting precipitated a higher level of artistry than was possible before, with materials like clay, stone, and wood. The strength of bronze meant it had great versatility in terms of its shape and also held great possibility for decoration. Structural integrity became less of a concern, so the makers focused more on aesthetics. The precision of line and extravagant detail available to artisans when working in bronze encouraged the experimentation and advancement that leaves us with stunning examples like SAM’s gui, on view at the Asian Art Museum.

The decorative scheme, covering the entire surface of the vessel, is repeated on both sides of the bowl. Abstract patterns and beast-like figures meld together and create an impressive total visual effect. The ornament breaks down into three registers: the lip, the foot, and the main, central register. The spiral designs we see used all over the vessel as filler ornament are known as leiwen. The upper register features pairs of beasts known as kui dragons that face a pretty intimidating head in the middle. The central register features a creature known as a taotie—a widely used and important design element for the period. The flange right in the middle forms a kind of nose or beak; the eyes are about halfway up the register and equidistant from the flange on either side; scythe-like horns rise up on either side. This and the other beast-like creatures in the upper and lower registers show a remarkable vision that blends representation and design. The ram heads that crown the handles show how both can play into function, too.

Gui (detail)

The scheme is perfectly symmetric—a mirror image on either side—which makes it especially interesting that the maker formed it from a ceramic piece, (mold composed of three parts). Like most bronze vessels of the early Bronze Age in China, the gui was designed for serving food in the rituals of the aristocracy. Today we can’t make use of its function, but we can definitely still admire its craftsmanship. Gorge with your eyes!

Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

IMAGE: Gui (vessel for serving grain), Chinese, 13th c. B.C., bronze, 5 3/8 x 10 3/4 x 7 in. Seattle Art Museum, Margaret E. Fuller Purchase Fund, 56.34.
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