TWO JOLLY ROUND CERAMIC watermelons sitting on the ground floor of the Museum of Contemporary Craft do not look like the work of an angry man. And yet Ai Weiwei is as much an agitator and activist as he is an artist and craftsman. He's been compared to Andy Warhol, and some of his pieces certainly recall the poppy Factory style in hue and commercial reference, but Ai's working from a background that could hardly be more dissimilar.
Raised in the Gobi Desert while his father was being punished by the Communist Party of China for what was perceived as subversive writing (according to a profile published in the New Yorker in May, he had been banished from Beijing and reassigned as a toilet cleaner), Ai escaped to the US as a young man, pursuing his own art and gobbling up culture in New York City. Upon returning to China in 1993, he set about becoming notorious, staging shocking exhibitions and ranting on a blog that was eventually shut down by the government.
Dropping the Urn, on view now, focuses on Ai's ceramic vessels. An awe-inspiring pile of life-sized, hollow porcelain sunflower seeds, each individually painted, sits in a striking pile, referencing a common street snack and, more slyly, a phrase in communist propaganda comparing the Chinese people to sunflowers turning to face Chairman Mao Zedong. Many of the pieces were originally traditional vessels from the Neolithic era—ancient yet common jugs that Ai dipped and dripped in bright, contrasting colors, leaving the original patterns partially visible, appealing at once to modern and traditional sensibilities.
A three-panel photo series, "Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn," shows Ai unflinchingly, purposefully dropping the artifact in a perversion of historical anti-bourgeois ideology. Equivalent vessels are interrupted by a swooping Coca-Cola logo, while others mimic Qing Dynasty blue and white—fakes with old clay mixed in to skew carbon dating, a common counterfeiter's trick. Vessels within vessels lock traditionally patterned spheres within large blank urns, and others are decorated only inside, as if having been turned out.
Weiwei's desecrations have made him one of the most controversial artists working today. As representative of a generation that learned Western culture in one nonlinear deluge after China reopened its doors, his perspective will be important for decades, if not centuries, to come.