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Clay shows begin–Ai Weiwei at Arcadia; bodies at the Mutter


Just when you thought that you were finally making headway through the riches of the Philagrafika shows, 90 clay shows and events are starting to open all around town. The multiple shows are in conjunction with the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA) conference in Philadelphia from March 21 to April 3. I went to two that were early off the blocks, and they are as different as can be.

Ai Weiwei, Colored Vases, 2006, vases from the Neolithic age (5000-3000 BCE) and industrial paint, from between 10 inches by diameter 9 and 14 1/2 inches by diameter 9.5, Courtesy AW Asia collection

One is by international art star Ai Wei Wei–his first US solo show outside of New York–at Arcadia University‘s art gallery. It is cool, conceptual, and contemporary.

aiweiwei watermelons
Ai Weiwei, Watermelons, 2006, porcelain and glaze, 17.5 x 15 inches, courtesy the artist

The other is a group show less-known artists at the Mutter Museum, and it is hot, material, and almost Victorian in its concerns and approach.

They reflect the changing status of clay in the art world as a medium that can go in almost any direction. I don’t mean to suggest that the work in the two shows is of equal interest. I do mean to suggest that the work around town reflects that diversity.

Ai Weiwei: Dropping the Urn at Arcadia University

“I think he’s pulling my leg” was what one Arcadia faculty member said to me the night of a talk on Ai Weiwei by art historian Dr. Charles Merewether. His March 3 talk was delivered in conjunction with the artist’s exhibit Dropping the Urn, Ceramic Works, 5000 BCE – 2010 CE.

Well, I guess he is, but with great seriousness of intent. The best humor is always about something–or it might not be so funny.

Ai Weiwei, Dust to Dust, 2009, ground Neolithic potter (5000-3000 BCE), glass jar, 10.25 inches high, courtesy the artist; inside the jar is pulverized earthenware, which looks a lot like dirt.

What intrigued me was how the issues explored by Ai Weiwei reflect the same issues that Joao Ribas was pondering in the Works on Paper show–how to determine artistic value in a culture that allows for duplication, multiples, and transfer of information to an unprecedented degree.

While Ribas was exploring this issue in relations to the internet and digital powers of reproduction, Ai is exploring it in the context of an ancient culture with a seemingly unlimited population who can reproduce things by hand ad infinitum. Ai also spent about a decade in America, and although he has returned to China, it helps explain how he has incorporated so much of what is going on here. Ai is sitting comfortably between the cracks of two great civilizations, playing their values and methods against each other.

Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1955, triptych of gelatin silver prints, each 49 5/8 inches high, courtesy private collection in New York.

Ai shows himself in three photos (Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn) dropping what he claims is a 5000 BCE vase, but is it really? The idea that the vases might not be as old as purported is not my own. Merewether himself said, “Is it original or is it a copy? He [Ai] has never said onoe way or the other.”

Perhaps the vase in the image is one of the numerous skillful reproductions–and maybe even originals–that I’m told sell a dime a dozen along any Chinese roadway. And if we can’t tell the original from the copy, is the original more valuable just because it is old? And is the skillful copy more valuable than an American factory-made, look-ma-no-hands copy?

If Ai is transgressing vis a vis Chinese values, I suspect the transgression has more to do with the political nature of Chinese millions working for low wages at repetitive tasks and perhaps about the loss of an ancient civilization. He sure is transgressing vis a vis our own values here, which have more to do with whose hand is the real hand and the intrinsic value of something aged. All I know is if I go into a museum and purchase a copy of an ancient clay pot, I pay some cash that suggests the quality of the copy has a value in and of itself.

Ai Weiwei, Coca Cola Vase, 1997, vase from Neolithic Age (5000-3000 BCE) and paint, 13 inch diameter, courtesy Tsai Collection, NY

By painting the Coca-Cola logo on a purportedly ancient pot (Coca-Cola Vase), Ai is discussing capitalism and the recent invasion of American values, companies and methods into China’s ancient culture, with incredible economy of means. Yet China’s ancient culture is no more. It has been transformed first by homegrown Communism. So the label may be on a Chinese capitalist product, perhaps? Either way, our cultures, for all their differences, are amalgamating before our eyes!

Ai Weiwei, untitled, 2006, porcelain, 1 ton, diameter approx. 80 inches, courtesy the artist

As for the one-ton pile of porcelain sunflower seeds, each made by hand and unique, and doubtlessly manufactured by minions, I couldn’t help think of the seeds as people, and the copies as mere husks and simulacra, their useful value actually less than the cheap real thing but their market value as art astronomical.

But the issue of time is clearly very much on Ai’s mind, of a culture that is knocking down its past to make way for its own brave new world.

Ai Weiwei, Souvenir from Beijing, 2002, brick from dismantled hutong house, box of iron wood from dismantled temple of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), 3.75 x 13.75 x 8 7/8 inches

I thought this show of a mere 12 pieces is great, capturing the contradictions of a world undergoing constant social and economic revolution–expressed in timeless materials and methods. Not all the pieces were equally satisfying, but all in all, if I’m getting my leg pulled, I hope Ai continues.

The Ai Weiwei exhibit, which was curated by Gallery Director Richard Torchia and Gregg Moore (artist and Arcadia associate professor of art and design), runs to April 18, with several upcoming related events–two talks and film, on the agenda. The show and events are free and open to the public.

The  Mutter Museum show, Corporeal Manifestations, is one that I thought was likely to be overlooked in the onslaught of clay shows in more traditional gallery spaces.

The Mutter, a museum of medical history, is a Philadelphia treasure with a national reputation for its collection of medical oddities, anatomical specimens, models and old medical instruments. Corporeal Manifestations manages to capture the weirdness of the standing collection. The fanciful physiological oddities of the sculptures are more about psychological manifestations than medical ones.

The works are all representational and with a variety of influences from grotesque to Maillol to Dali.

Roxanne Jackson, “Cadaver Study with Grill”

Of the work by the 11 artists included in the show, what I personally found most interesting were Tom Bartel’s Red Headed Step Child, armless and red-faced in his jammies, looking like he’s still a little unformed and unready for life, and Roxanne Jackson’s Cadaver Study with Grill, which suggest the trappings of success and fashion are fleeting.

Others in the show are Kate MacDowell, Melissa Mencini, Jason Briggs, Christina West, Anne Drew Potter, Colleen Toledano,  Jessica Kreutter, Tip Toland,  and Sergei Isupov. Toledano is a Philadelphia artist and the others come from as far away as Seattle, and points in-between. The show was curated by Sasha Reibstein, an Associate Professor of Art and Director of Ceramics at Palomar College.

If you have iPhone technology, this exhibit has an app with lots of helpful background information.

The exhibit will be open until August 2, and general admission of $14 makes seeing this show seems steep, unless you are also going to look at the wonderful standing exhibits in the museum.

General Admission, $14
Ages 6-17, 65+, students and military with valid ID, $10
Children under 6, free.