Dropping the Urn — Burning the Man

The end of a year, the start of another one, comes with a sense of celebration all over the world. It’s just celebrated on different calendar days in various cultures with their most unique festivities. Crackers in some towns. Grand feasts in others. We decided to break away from our regular routines and travel to Goa this New Year. We reached on the morning of the eve and took a drive down to the beach where we chose to stay. On our way, we were called out to from the road where a large gathering of children were jumping up and down. Next to them on a plastic chair, sat slouched a man made of hay, pots, old clothes, and sticks. The taxi driver later told us that it is a custom for them to burn this dummy made in the image of a human on New Year’s Eve to commence the celebration.

Ai Weiwei, is a famous and extremely important contemporary artist in China, who has many changing forms: photographer, architect, blogger, ceramist, sculptor, curator, filmmaker, and socio-political critic. He was born in 1957 to one of the greatest modern poets in China, Ai Qing. In 1958, Ai Qing was accused as being anti-communist, forbidden to write, and exiled to Xinjiang province, where Ai Weiwei spent his youth. In the late 1970s he participated in a group of young artists in Beijing in an attempt to gain greater personal and artistic freedom. In 1982, he decided to leave China and move to New York. Until then, Ai Weiwei had stuck to painting and drawing. Working with the New York art scene, he realized an artist could use any object and medium. In 1993, his father became very ill, and Ai Weiwei returned to China.

This amazing local custom in Goa reminded us of this set of three photographs he exhibited in 1995 and Coloured Vases that he exhibited later in 2006:

Dropping a Hans Dynasty Urn (Ai Weiwei (1995) Three b/w prints each 148 x 121 cm)

Coloured Vases (Ai Weiwei (2006). Neolithic Vases (5000-3000 BC) and industrial paint. Fifty-one pieces, dimensions variable)

Bean Gilsdorf in Dailyserving.com aptly describes these pieces of work:

Urns of this vintage are usually cherished for their anthropological importance.  By employing them as readymades, Ai strips them of their aura of preciousness only to reapply it according to a different system of valuation… Working in this manner, Ai transforms precious artifacts—treating them as base and valueless by painting, dropping, grinding, or slapping with a logo—into contemporary fine art.  The substitution of one kind of value for another occurs when he displays the transformed urns in a museum vitrine, reinstilling value but replacing historical significance with a newer cultural one.

His works raised a lot of political questions and were constantly engaging with the socio-cultural mileu in China. He became very famous over the last decade, and began to be considered a threat to the Chinese Government. Last year in April, he was arrested in Peking airport and many laptops, hard drives, and other material were seized from his studio. After three months of detention and interrogation on matters of tax evasion by his company/studio Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd, he was released in June in response to worldwide pressure by artists, governments, and general people.

This particular choice of work we were reminded of, actually symbolize the old and the new quite interestingly. Often the old gets idolized as history, it becomes concrete, losing a large part of its function — it becomes a monument, an artifact, a fossil. The local custom we saw in Goa symbolized the getting rid of old ideas, patterns, prejudices, worries…all in the act of burning a man (dummy). The destruction of an artifact, or rather the transformation of one, like Ai Weiwei did – calls for such a New Year in the political and cultural realm, which gives everyone greater personal and social freedom.

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