|ai weiwei's colored vases (2006)|
scandal is sincerity when it is not programmed. sincerity is scandal when the wise world officially runs up against it. -- günter brus (1971)
it all begins with this odd piece of news from the new york times:
(...) a valuable vase by the Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei had been deliberately destroyed by a visitor in what appeared to be an act of protest. A spokeswoman for the museum said the incident occurred on Sunday afternoon when a local artist walked into the waterfront museum and picked up one of the vases in an installation of Mr. Ai’s work titled “Colored Vases.” A guard asked the man to put it down, but instead he threw it to the ground, smashing it, the spokeswoman said. (click the CNN video in the nytimes piece).who is the culprit? máximo caminero, a local miami artist.
Mr. Caminero, a native of the Dominican Republic who has long lived in Miami, told the Miami New Times, a weekly newspaper, after his arrest that he had broken the vase to protest what he said was the museum’s exclusion of local artists in its exhibits.since caminero has no known previous criminal record, it's only fair to take up his reasons:
1- "It was a spontaneous protest,"protesting on which ground?
2- "I was at PAMM and saw Ai Weiwei's photos behind the vases where he drops an ancient Chinese vase and breaks it. And I saw it as a provocation by Weiwei to join him in an act of performance protest."
3- (...) "for all the local artists in Miami that have never been shown in museums here."are caminero's reasons justified?
the CNN video implies that caminero's protest "mirrors" weiwei's. performativity (as we'll see later) follows its own norms.
according to the nytimes article, PAMM's description of weiwei's piece discloses that the chinese artist dropped a 206 BCE-220 CE urn to the floor "to express the notion that new ideas and values can be produced through iconoclasm."
new ideas and values produced through iconoclasm? here weiwei is basically endorsing a cultural practice of (deliberate) destruction of a culture's symbol for political motives. in 1995, on the occasion of smashing the dynasty urn, he manifested:
I think by shattering it we can create a new form, a new way to look at what is valuable— how we decide what is valuable.1let's call this justification (of the destruction of symbols in order) to crate new forms, the weiwei's performativity principle.
in order to avoid the charge of vandalism, weiwei's performativity principle must --implicitly-- presuppose a political (or moral) justification.
let's not miss a subordinate point here: weiwei's iconoclasm brings transgression to a centre stage, i.e., the destruction of a chinese cultural treasure is performatively and thus morally/politically justified. but the justification of weiwei's act prsupposes that weiwei's destruction of the ancient chinese urn is a vandalic act.
is caminero's protest/performance not politically justified?
exploring what makes a performance legit is important --in this case-- because caminero's protest has been presented as a criminal act by a PAMM's official by the name of leann standish, who was quick to denounce it as "an act of vandalism."
you'd expect this quick and crude assessment from the police, not from an official representative of a museum exhibiting a performance/document where its author (ai weiwei) appears smashing a similar vase, under the same performative principle which caminero now simply reenacts.
see that we're not underplaying or excusing caminero's action (his unconventional (perhaps radical) use of weiwei's vase as a vehicle for his protest has legal ramifications), nor are we heeding the ridiculous price-tag of $1 million, quickly thrown by PAMM to put a figure to his "crime."
what is at stake here (in following weiwei's performativity principle) is whether the reasons for caminero's protest balance out standard property-rights considerations. let's see:
weiwei's performativity principle bypasses property. why? because owning an ancient chinese urn doesn't give anyone the right to break it. cultural artefacts are considered exclusive in their archaeological, ethnological and social significance. weiwei is, de facto, introducing a different normative order here, i.e., iconoclasm supervenes property.
the question now is are there moral/political reasons to repeat this principle?
philosopher & performance theorist judith butler makes a case for this possibility. she calls this act of repetition (in performance) "citationality."
Performativity is not a regular act, for it's always a reiteration of a norm, or sets of norms, and to the extent that it requires an act-like status in the present, it conceals or dissimulates the conventions of which it is a repetition. Moreover, the act is not primarily theatrical, indeed its apparent theatricality is produced to the extent that its historicity remains dissimulated (and conversely its theatricality gains a certain inevitability ... a performative is that practice that enacts or produces what it names.2performativity "is not a regular act." in a sense, caminero's protest presupposes a reiteration of a norm. which norm? by smattering the vase, the performer at once legitimates & overcomes the transgression involved. art's performativity is a productive activity: the breaking of norms justify the creation new forms.
what makes a protest/performance legitimate? we suggest a criteria we discussed with performance artist and theorist marina abramoviç on the occasion of her 2007 conference at FIU. she mentioned proper context, & compelling reason.
proper context: caminero carried out his protest/performance right in front of weiwei's document/piece @ PAMM in front of everybody. see how (in the CNN clip & later photos) caminero stands next to weiwei's installation & calmly & deliberately proceeds to let the vase fall onto the floor (as he looks onto weiwei's photos).
compelling reason: caminero's protest/performance was meant to call attention to a persisting problem of the art establishment.
contemporary art's arbitrary criteria of inclusion. 3
no vandal would act in this manner. a gratuitous act of destruction destroys either for its own sake or (as some artists in facebook & elsewhere have implied) for the sake of a self-aggrandizement.
this is what performance theorist & actionist günter brus refers to as sincerity. caminero was simply doing what he thought was right. as important performance theorists like abramovic, oko, burden, schneemann, etc have pointed out, performance art is much more than mere theatricality.
some limit situations have a purpose because they bring to the open a persistent problem that is often overlooked or ignored altogether. performance artist chris burden has identified how these "limit" situations offer a purpose:
by setting up aberrant situations my art functions on a higher reality.4
caminero's smashing weiwei's so-called "one million dollar vase" @ PAMM is aberrant enough (in our present context of an incestuous & redundant art market) to fit burden's prescription. performance art is neither inside --nor outside-- the political or moral realms; it becomes a sort of inter-dependent realm to discuss political and moral issues.
here @ miami bourbaki, we present arthoodication, the problem caminero protests against, as a riddle:
Where is the magic of art if people realize that what makes art art is a market strategy?
which brings me to weiwei's reaction to caminero's protest/performance.
i was baffled by his comment as quoted in the new york times:
even worse,The argument does not support the act,” Mr. Ai said. “It doesn’t sound right. His argument (Caminero's) doesn’t make much sense. If he really had a point, he should choose another way, because this will bring him trouble to destroy property that does not belong to him.
“My work belongs to me, it doesn't belong to the public and also it doesn't [belong to] somebody else.”
wait a minute, are you saying that your (iconoclastic) conceptual recipe applies only to you?
this is an unfortunate verdict, coming from china's enfant terrible of the arts.
this is an unfortunate verdict, coming from china's enfant terrible of the arts.
thus, i leave weiwei with günter brus' motto: sincerity is scandal when the wise world officially runs against it.
1ai weiwei and larry warsh, weiwei-isms (princeton university press, 2012), p. 37. 2 judith butler, bodies that matter (1993), tracey warr and amelia jones (the artist's body, themes and movements series, phaidon press) p. 263. 3 we've discussed arthoodication elsewhere. enough to ask: what are the criteria for what goes on the walls of an exhibit? the truth is that the art market, through its collectors & institutions and curators, unproblematically arthoodicate what counts as contemporary (i.e., "contemporary" becomes a sanctioned & redundant convention of style, i.e., if X is on the wall X is good). 4 contemporary art, a source book of artists' writings, (university of california press, 1996), p. 768.