Friday, 21 February 2014



This week, we witnessed another broken Han Dynasty vase in an Ai WeiWei exhibition -- but this time, it wasn’t Ai breaking ancient pottery. On Monday, a protester at the PĂ©rez Art Museum Miami (PAMM) in Florida smashed one of the vessels in “Colored Vases,” an installation in the exhibition According to What.

By now you probably have heard all about this act and read global responses on blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and wherever anyone can voice an opinion. But I wanted to bring the discussion to this blog because I thought it would be great to hear thoughts and opinions from our MMSt community, especially since many of us spent quite a bit of time visiting, thinking, talking, and writing about According to What during its display at the AGO last fall -- not to mention all of the practical issues and more theoretical questions that arise from an incident like this.

The broken vase at PAMM. Source: Miami New Times Blog

In an interview with the Miami New Times, protester Maximo Caminero explains his motive: “I did it for all the local artists in Miami that have never been shown in museums here.” He explains the spontaneity of the gesture, noting his inspiration from Ai’s triptych “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn” displayed nearby -- which he saw as a “provocation [...] to join in an act of performance protest.”

An initial issue has already been mulled over several times by bloggers including Jonathan Jones (OnArt in the Guardian) and Peter Simpson (The Big Beat in the Ottawa Citizen): what makes it acceptable for Ai Weiwei to destroy and deface a piece of cultural property, when it is a crime for someone else to smash his artwork? While both Jones and Simpson acknowledge Ai for his artistic and political courage, they are wary of Ai’s criticism that "the [protester's] argument doesn't support the act" -- as Jones reflects, “The reasons for condemning one destructive act and celebrating another don’t seem clear.” (At the same time, Ai was also described in the New York Times as being "not overly distressed by the breakage.")

The question of “ownership” of cultural objects additionally arises from this discussion. As Ai notes in an interview with the BBC, he destroyed a Han dynasty vase, which was his own property. But the protester did not own the vase in the museum. But who owns the artwork in the museum? On some level, does it belong to all the museum’s stakeholders, including the public? (For the record, I don't think public "ownership" of museum objects merits their destruction -- my aim here is to rhetorically question the notions of ownership.) And regarding the original vases, even though Ai bought the vases himself, can he really claim “ownership” of a 2000-year-old vessel? In this regard, I think the argument of who “owns” the vessels, painted or otherwise, falls short both in justifying or condemning the protest.

The situation provokes another (among many -- but I’ll stop after this one) important question for museums that display works of art and artifacts unguarded by ropes and glass: trust. Nearly as soon as I read this story, I wondered whether any new restrictions or precautions will arise in museums -- and if, when trust is violated in such a public and obvious way (a recurring theme lately?), visitors everywhere must pay the price? Another layer here is the future trust in the PAMM -- will the museum still be a trusted steward of its collections, permanent and temporary? In no way are fingers being pointed at PAMM for not taking enough steps to protect these objects (indeed, the openness of the installations is very much integral to According to What), but this incident likely will be associated with PAMM in the years to come.

Enough now of my reflections: what is your take? What were your initial reactions to the news, and have you considered any further implications in the days since the incident? 


  1. Katherine, I am glad you wrote about this story as I have been thinking about this story this week, especially in relation to the act of breaking, which is, according to Ai, a creative act. I was listening to CBC radio the other day to an interview with the artist about this incident and I was surprised by his conservative reply - he was upset (as upset as Ai can be publicly :) about the fact that someone would destroy a piece of art work in a museum. There was little discussion of the context and intention of the protester, who was reacting against the collecting practices of the museum. I am glad that you mentioned the idea of ownership and trust especially when it comes to heritage objects. And, at a time when museum professionals are asked to take objects from their glass cases and give visitors access to histories and stories embodied in these objects, the issue of trust is significant. Thank you for a thoughtful post!

  2. Glad you addressed this Katherine! One thing I couldn't help but be affected by was the fact that headlines are saying a visitor damaged a famous Ai Weiwei art work worth $1 million. What about the fact that this visitor damaged a Han dynasty vase that was culturally valuable even before Ai made it part of one of his installations? As you mention in your post, this of course raises some interesting issues regarding ownership of art/cultural property. I'm still grappling with the debate of whether or not Ai had any more right to destroy these urns since he purchased them than the museum visitor. What makes Ai's justification for destroying a Han urn any different from the visitor's? Both were trying to make some sort of statement. Does this mean that if I can afford to buy a Da Vinci painting for my own personal collection, then I also have the right to burn it just because I can afford it? In my opinion, that is not a valid reason. While I can appreciate both Ai and the visitor's motivations behind their artwork/artistic statements, I think actions like this discourage the kind of appreciation works of art and historical artifacts deserve. Why should the general public care about art if it is seen as disposable to the artists/art community themselves?