Art & Activism: Reshaping Tradition with Ai Weiwei

Aug 31, 2015

Ai-WeiweiThe familiar and the iconic. Chinese history and tradition versus our “Western consumer culture.” Blue-and-white ware versus the psychedelic. Vases and moon jars. Contemporary art and traditional aesthetics.

“The character of the present.”

“Quiet aesthetics.”

Opening on September 11, the Pacific Asia Museum presents pre-modern ceramic works exhibited alongside the works by 7 East Asian artists in “Reshaping Tradition: Contemporary Ceramics from East Asia.”

China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam.

Ai Weiwei, Harumi Nakashima, Ik-joong Kang, Yeesookyun, Bui Cong Khanh, Ah Xian, and Liu Jianhua.




Ai Weiwei is an artist and also a social and political activist. Jeffrey Brown of PBS describes Ai as “a prankster who can make a tea house literally out of tea leaves and represents the real surveillance camera that watches him at his home in China as a marble sculpture.”

Antique wooden stools from the Qing Dynasty repurposed into a sculpture called “Grapes,” a video documenting changes along a major street in Beijing, an ancient vase creatively altered or debased — you decide — with a modern-day logo, now on display at the Smithsonian’s HirshhornMuseum in Washington, D.C.

He’s also a visionary who helped design the Bird’s Nest stadium for the Beijing Olympics and whose use of social media is shifting the boundaries of art and activism, and a dissident pressing for human rights who took a picture and tweeted it even as he was being arrested in 2009.

Kerry Brougher, chief curator of the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum, states, “For me, Ai Weiwei has been one of the most important artists that has emerged from this new wave of Chinese art from the ’90s and the 2000s.” (“Art, China & Censorship According to Ai Weiwei,” 2012,




Ai is seen, also, as a divisive element as many of the vases that he paints are approximately 2,000 years old, dating to the Han Dynasty, “drawing criticism that painting them defaces the original work” though it’s also said that the Chinese government has thousands of this pottery and the price is artificially inflated. Ai’s been photographed dropping a historical vase, an act that epitomizes Ai’s intentions, questioning…

the socio-political commentary on the random nature of vectors of power; questions of authenticity and value (vis-à-vis the artist’s comment that the value of “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn” has today exceeded that of the once-prized urn itself), and the cycle of creative destruction necessary for any culture’s survival and evolution. (MRod)


Reshaping Tradition: Contemporary Ceramics from East Asia
Friday, Sept. 11 through Jan. 31, 2016
Pacific Asia Museum, 46 N. Los Robles Ave., Pasadena 91101
Cost: $10, general; $7, seniors & students; free, children under 12 & PAM members
Hours: Wednesday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.
For details, visit

Note: Images in this article are examples of the artists’ works and as such may not be included in the upcoming exhibit.


By Harumi Nakashima

By Harumi Nakashima


Taking inspiration from this widely recognized tradition, Harumi Nakashima creates free-form ceramic sculptures that employ a design vocabulary borrowed from blue-and-white ware. Nakashima’s hand-built organic yet psychedelic ceramic sculpture, with his iconic blue-and-white dot decorations, tackles diverse issues, ranging from cross-cultural interchange to the aesthetics and functionality of ceramics.


Forms that Reveal the Absurd - 1403






Born in Korea, Ik-joong Kang reinterprets the moon jar of the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910) with his unique understanding of the vessel using a variety of materials. His installations and exhibitions employ differentiated images of a porcelain moon jar on paper or on panel, often juxtaposed with his contemporary interpretations of multiple moon jars, transforming the familiar and iconic Korean art object. His work also embodies layers of poignant associations from the artist’s own life and engages the viewers to visualize their own reveries.


Ik-Joong Kang 'Things I Know' Sabina Lee Gallery, Los Angeles, CA. Photograph by Osceola Refetoff

Ik-Joong Kang ‘Things I Know’ Sabina Lee Gallery, Los Angeles; photo by Osceola Refetoff






Best known for her “Translated Vases” series, Yeesookyung examines Korean ceramics from both historical and contemporary perspectives. Yee intuitively works with shards of porcelain and celadon pots produced by contemporary masters. She combines these shards with epoxy then traces the seams with 24-karat gold leaf. Despite their fractured structures, the resulting forms are organic and lyrical, with a precarious sense of balance, radically departing from the original ceramic vessels.

Korean artist Yee Soo-Kyung simultaneously honors and defies the drive for perfection with her massive, seething sculptures that are crafted from rejected porcelain pieces made by contemporary Korean pottery master Lim Hang-Taek, who is the epitome of artistic perfectionism. Taek discards any piece that doesn’t meet his staggering standards, tossing nearly 80 percent of his work into a growing pile of shards. In a series of works entitled “Translated Vase,” Yee Soo-Kyung breathes new life into Taek’s rejected pottery, building pieces upon pieces to create forms that defy the traditional notion of pottery as something that ought to complement – rather than compete with – its surroundings. (“Yee Soo-Kyung: Picking Up the Pieces,” by Lauren Hostetter, 2012,




Gallery view; photo from

Gallery view; photo from





Same Script, Different Cast_crop


Trained as an oil painter, Bùi Công Khánh incorporates visual images addressing history and contemporary society in Vietnam and the impact that global capital is having upon it onto his ceramic works. His blue-and-white porcelain vases, which reference both traditional and contemporary culture, combine the dichotomy of the fast changing society of his country. Khanh’s vases address what he calls ‘the character of the present,’ the sounds and sights of daily life. In his work, traditional forms interplay with symbols of quotidian life, encased in classic Vietnamese ornamentation. The artist will be present for CONVERSATIONS@PAM on November 21 with prominent art historians and curators in the field.




“What I care most about is the present life I live. I don’t want to be a sponge for the past; I don’t want to use the past in order to preserve the ‘national cultural character’.” (

Bùi Công Khánh is an artist deeply fascinated by social assumptions of cultural heritage. As one of the first local artists to gain an international reputation during the 1990s, with his performances questioning restrictions of individual expression in communist Vietnam, Bùi’s multifarious practice has since embraced painting, sculpture, installation, video and drawing, with successful showcases across the Southeast Asian region and beyond. (“Bùi Công Khánh” by Zoe Butt, 2015,










China-born Ah Xian sought his political asylum in Australia following the event of Tiananmen Square in 1989. Reflecting his complex life experience, the artist explores the relationship between artistic tradition and cultural context by combining the two most common media, sculpture and painting. He borrows the sculptural form of the bust, a long-standing portraiture tradition in the West and decorates the surface using designs derived from the Chinese porcelain tradition. His series is both art historical and personal as it delves into the issue of his cultural identity as a Chinese artist working in Australia.









Trained in the Fine Arts Department of Jingdezhen Pottery & Porcelain College, Liu Jianhua examines the thematic overlap of contemporary art with traditional Chinese aesthetics in his ceramic installations. He avoids cultural and sociological interpretations of the Chinese ceramic tradition and focuses on delivering a new visual experience-what he refers to as “quiet aesthetics.” The artist will be present for the exhibition installation and opening.

The absence of the individual makes Liu´s works more like a visual orgy that is more extreme than reality itself … all the doors of memory open to material things and culture, while the existence and experience of the individual are deliberately ignored. (Pi Li, art critic and curator;









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