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AI Weiwei; Painted vases

The vast majority of China's surviving Neolithic earthenware comprises funerary urns and grave goods: their long interment accounting for their remarkable state of preservation. Decorated earthenware was typically made from fine-grained clay painted in red, brown, black, maroon or white pigments and gently burnished to a mellow lustre. The lower parts were left undecorated, probably as they would have been partially buried in the ground to give them stability.

In Ai Weiwei's hands, bowls, storage jars and tripod vessels, some six to seven thousand years old, are transformed by the application of an almost day-glo bright monochrome pigment that covers their surfaces. The original bold geometric or curvilinear patterns that adorn their forms and presumably had symbolic significance to the artisans who painted them, (a significance modern archaeologists have attempted to interpret and decipher), are obliterated, yet they still exist, masked by a veneer of obviously synthetic and modern pigment that has no connection with the original.

The aura of extreme and enigmatic antiquity that permeates these objects has been disrupted by Ai Weiwei's intervention, reflecting their loss of purpose and aesthetic meaning with the passage of time. The works, however, take on a new life; the juxtapositions of form and colour in his mischievous arrangements bringing them a fresh perspective.

Essay by Sarah Tiffin, Curator, Historical Asian Art, Aug. 2005.

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