The Fussy Eye: Setting the Price

Because there’s a new documentary screening this week about the Chinese dissident and artist Ai Weiwei, now’s a good time to consider SAAM’s new permanent installation Colored Vases, his first addition to the museum’s collection. Ai has a contentious relationship with traditional ceramics, having famously—or infamously, depending on your perspective—dropped and shattered a 2,000-year-old Han Dynasty urn for a 1995 photo series. It was a shocking and still controversial act, a rupture and repudiation of officially sanctioned history and taste, a slap at the canon and an insistence on the value of the new. (Look what we’re doing now, Ai is saying; new and important Chinese art is being made today.) That gesture had its echo two months before our Colored Vases went on view in April: A disgruntled Miami artist shattered one of Ai’s similarly overpainted Han Dynasty vases to protest the Pérez Art Museum Miami’s privileging an international art-world superstar like Ai rather than supporting local talent. There was a lot of confusion then about the monetary value of the urn, the meaning of both gestures, and the nature of the traveling show Ai Weiwei: According to What?, which sadly won’t visit Seattle.

Our vases, like the broken one in Miami, aren’t inherently precious. They’re old, yes, but Ai was able to buy these earthenware vessels in bulk because there are so many of them, because China has so much history. Our nine vases were sloppily dipped in various bright shades of inexpensive industrial paint. The new has been crudely overlaid upon the old; history is erased, and the action forces you to consider what exactly was there to begin with. And was it in fact so valuable? Ai’s concealing is also revealing, a kind of emperor-has-no-clothes provocation. How many ordinary Chinese factory workers would want such an old, unpainted urn? And how many Chinese billionaires, plus rich Western collectors abroad, would want one of Ai’s signature works? In February, some news reports said the broken Miami vase was worth $1 million, which Ai called “a very ridiculous number.” (He should know, since he bought them all in the ’90s, before he was rich and famous.) Ever the shrewd appropriator of found materials, Ai is the one setting the price on objects both new and old.

Seattle Asian Art Museum, 1400 E. Prospect St. (Volunteer Park), 654-3100, $5–$7. 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Wed.–Sun., 10 a.m.–9 p.m. Thurs.

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