The photograph of Ai Weiwei dropping a Han Dynasty urn is my computer background, mainly for aesthetic reasons. I find the black and white colors soothing and movement of the pieces visually stimulating — but not too much so — after a long day of Zoom classes. But there’s so much more to the art behind the disorganized folders on my desktop, and, nowadays, “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn” feels more relevant than ever.
“Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn” is a three-paneled photograph taken in 1995. Ai is the man pictured. The urn was created in the Han Dynasty, which, for those of us not well-versed in history, lasted from around 202 B.C.E to 220 C.E.
The three-paneled photograph itself is rather simple: Ai holds the urn and then drops it, an action captured in three snapshots as the urn falls to the ground and ultimately shatters. It’s worth noting that this urn is both culturally and monetarily significant: It’s a priceless and centuries-old pot. Still, Ai’s eyes are deadpan, and his hands open up as if to offer a sarcastic “whoops.”
One of my passions is visual art. Many people, justifiably so, find it pretentious, frivolous or inaccessible. But through “Off the Wall,” I hope to contextualize visual art in a way that feels relevant to our lives. Whether a deep dive into a specific work of art, an observation about interesting phenomena in the art world or a spotlight on the contributions of artists of color and women artists, I hope “Off the Wall” encourages a conversation about art appreciation and lessons of the past and present.
So back to Ai — who is this guy anyway? Why is he dropping an urn, and why does it matter? Some biographical context might give us some clues.
Ai grew up during the Cultural Revolution in China, which lasted from 1966 to 1976. Ai’s father was a famous poet, and, as such, the family was exiled to a city in northwestern China. After they returned to Beijing in 1976, Ai began experimenting with animation in film school. Then, in 1981, he left China to study visual art in the United States, eventually settling in the art hub that is New York.
Ai was influenced by a plethora of artists, especially those who make conceptual art. Conceptual art is defined as a work of art in which the reasoning behind the art is more crucial than the visual aesthetics of the final product. These influences are apparent in much of his later work, especially in the pieces he created after his return to China in 1993 because of his father’s illness.
Back in China, Ai’s work took a more political tone, as he put his modern art in conversation with Chinese values and history. Two years later, he created “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn.”
The iconoclastic work references the Cultural Revolution in China launched by Mao Zedong, when many cultural objects and art were destroyed, historic sites were ransacked and artists and scientists were exiled or killed for representing the old culture. Some more scientifically oriented viewers are also quick to point out that the three panels also represent Isaac Newton’s three laws of motion. Many different meanings — or no meaning at all — can be prescribed to the same work of art; there isn’t really a wrong answer.
Regardless, it’s clear “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn” has things to say about Chinese history. But, as I look at the work on my desktop in between my Zoom class and my perusal of the online New York Times, it could also have statements to contribute to the present moment, and not only concerning China.
We all know life has been heavy in a lot of different ways recently, with the tragedies of the COVID-19 pandemic and the consequences of systemic racism widely apparent. The failures and fragilities of our society are on view in broad daylight. I know I’m not alone in this, but I sometimes feel like the urn in the second panel, in free fall halfway to the ground. Maybe you feel like the urn in the third panel once it’s already shattered; that’s completely justified, too.
There is a sense of fragility in “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn” and in this moment. We’ve been dropped, and I hate to say it, but no one’s in a position to catch our metaphorical and literal urn. In that solemn way, the piece feels emotionally representative of our collective feelings of uncertainty and fear about our futures, on an individual and societal level.
But maybe — call me an optimist — “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn” isn’t completely depressing. Perhaps it’s a call to action. Ai’s stony face in the third panel as he stands over the shattered pieces seems to say almost tauntingly, “Look at this. This happened. What are you going to do about it?”
That genuine question — “What are you going to do about it?” — more than anything, makes this piece relevant today.
Please write to me at [email protected] if “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn” (Ai Weiwei, 1995) means something different to you or bears special significance.
Maddie Finn is a senior in the College. Off the Wall will appear online every other week.