Ceramics have played important practical, social, and cultural roles for tens of thousands of years. Early pottery traditions have been studied and admired for their technological advances and remain an indicator of societal evolution, marking the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture. From Neolithic times pottery has incorporated aesthetic modifications, providing the foundation for an extraordinary range of designs that have influenced the development of subsequent artistic media.
Many ceramic forms continue to be based on utility; however the medium has also been used for a variety of artistic purposes. Contemporary artists have also looked to long-established ceramic traditions – Ai Weiwei manipulates Chinese Neolithic vessels to intervene with the passage of time, questioning value and aesthetic meaning throughout history
Neolithic Chinese pots are admired for their refined shape, elegant proportions and ancient patinas. For the modern collector, the values and meanings attached to these objects are vested not only in aesthetic characteristics, but also in their unique cultural authority as evidence of one the greatest epochs in China’s long history.
In Painted vases 2006, Ai Weiwei has performed a radical act in transforming these traditionally monochromatic objects into a brightly coloured array. He says of this action that it is ‘powerful only because someone thinks it’s powerful and invests value in the object’. The urns are valuable because the arbiters of taste and the art market have determined that this is so. In this work, the meaning and value of the urns is transformed and co-opted into a contemporary work that subverts and disrupts the prevailing value system to which it previously belonged.
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Featured image detail: Ai Weiwei’s Painted vases 2006