Conceptual Art Takes a Very Real Hit at the Pérez Art Museum Miami

by Steven Woodruff

Works by Ai Weiwei at the Perez

Works by Ai Weiwei at the Perez

The temptation was probably just too great. There was the photographic triptych of the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei dropping a Han Dynasty vase, a valuable piece of patrimonial property, smashing it to pieces on the floor. Steps away was another of Ai’s works, an array of 16 unprotected painted pots. As a protest against the museum’s history of ignoring local artists, Maximo Caminero, a Dominican artist living in Miami, picked up one of the pots, dropped it, and then quietly walked out of the museum. Like any good iconoclast worth his salt, he actually managed to destroy something as part of his protest. After his arrest he was charged with third degree felony vandalism.

Ai himself is no stranger to protest. He is a very public figure in China, and the designer of the Bird’s Nest Stadium, built as part of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.  He has been regularly harassed and imprisoned since the Olympics on a variety of charges aimed at stifling his activism and critical outlook on the Chinese government. In a sense he is a poor target. He’s no art darling, at least not in the sense of Andy Warhol who made millions on conceptual art, even during his lifetime, or Alexander Calder who became a certified money making machine. Ai is also still producing art and the incident is only likely to enhance his brand. The art work, Colored Vase, is owned by Mr. Ai and is part of a major traveling exhibition. I saw it at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C. when it opened there in 2013.

Bird's Nest  Stadium at the 2008 Beijing Olympics

Bird’s Nest Stadium at the 2008 Beijing Olympics

The outrage directed at Caminero has been harsh and swift.  The Pérez Art Museum Miami condemned the vandalism as has the local Miami arts community. The museum called it a “deplorable act of criminal vandalism”.  Laughably, Caminero said he saw the exhibit as a “cry for help” from Mr. Ai. Ai responded that he found the vandalism nonsensical. Caminero said he was protesting the lack of local artists represented at the Pérez. And while that may be true, his actions are hardly going to endear him to artists or museums.

Museums and galleries depend on an unwritten code of conduct. They are refuges where high standards of behavior have generally protected works without resorting to physical

Wood Installation by Ai Weiwei

Wood Installation by Ai Weiwei

barriers. Recent vandalism of works by Constable, Goya, Piccaso, and Rothko has made museums especially nervous. At last year’s Vermeer show at the Frick Collection,  Girl with a Pearl Earring was sealed off under two layers of glass and  shielded by a dais that kept museum goers 10 feet away from the painting itself. If you were looking for a quiet communion with one of the world’s great works of art, this was not it. Still, Caminero’s action poses the question: why is Ai’s own shoddy (and expensive) act of destruction  somehow thought-provoking and cool, while Caminero’s is not? Did Ai Weiwei perhaps see it coming?  Even invite it happening? He could easily replace the broken pot and restore Colored Vase to its former glory. Maybe the work will simply move on to the next museum with the current bit of history attached. Like the recently recovered World War II trove of looted paintings in Germany, or the theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre a hundred years ago, art often comes with stories attached.  “I’m OK with it”, said Ai.  “What can you do?” It seemed finally, a plain statement of Confucian fatalism.

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