Exhibition as Theater

Denise Y. Ho on Art and China After 1989 at the Guggenheim

The first time I saw Ai Weiwei’s art, I was appalled. Almost twenty years ago, long before he became an internationally-known contemporary artist, one of my Chinese-language classmates at Qinghua University brought me to Ai’s studio on the outskirts of Beijing. What I saw that afternoon remains imprinted in my mind’s eye: photographs of him giving the middle finger to monumental buildings, rows of ancient pottery casually whitewashed, and elegant Ming dynasty tables sawed in half and reattached at bizarre angles. It was not irreverence to power that bothered me; it was those last two artworks. Never having taken an art history course, and never having heard of the “readymade”, I was horrified that someone could take antiquities and destroy them.  Years later, as a graduate student in Chinese history, I researched and wrote about the idea of “cultural relics”. To this day, my seminar students at Yale take one session to debate the question of who owns art and artifacts.