Breaking, Fixing, Wondering

1995.  Two years after his return from the United States to China, Ai Weiwei, who had been collecting antique vases from markets, is photographed holding a Han dynasty vase, some 2000 years old.  He stares at us, impassively.  In the next shot in the triptych, he has moved his hands apart and the jar is falling, and in the third shot, it is smashed on the floor.  Ai Weiwei’s face has not moved a muscle; his hands gesture asymmetrically, one facing down as if pushing the vase downwards, the other facing out as if in surprise.  Even in its entirety the vase seems asymmetrical.  The only thing that appears symmetrical is the artist, dead centre against a brick wall.[1] 

Much lay behind this deliberate act of destruction.  Ai Weiwei’s father, the poet Ai Qing spent the Cultural Revolution in exile in Xinjiang, and forbidden to write.  He was himself cancelled as a writer, as so much else was destroyed.[2]  Mao claimed ‘The only way of building a new world is by destroying the old one,’ a phrase repeated by Ai Weiwei in response to criticism of his work.  Ai Weiwei’s appropriation of the Maoist rejection of the past was guileful; his gaze out at us provokes and challenges notions of value.  But it’s the smashed vase which I keep turning back to.  The fabric is thick and it has broken into large pieces – the body is smashed but the neck is largely intact.  You feel it could be picked up and restored.  In its fractured state, it remains recognisable.  And if the act appears wantonly destructive, Ai Weiwei’s gaze forces us to answer to the question of what value was in the past, what destruction we commit, what meaning we can make of breaking that is reconstructive of value.

We are used to looking at reconstructions of ancient vases.  It’s not uncommon to see more or less clumsy examples in museums.  The notion of repair is not modern though and there are striking examples of quite simple and cheap 5th century BCE Athenian vases which, transposed into Celtic society, had acquired such additional value that they were mended with gold.  The gold is far more valuable, intrinsically, than the cup itself, but the cup presumably acquired value by associations with a foreign exotic cultured world.[3] 

It is difficult not to think of the much later Japanese practice of kintsugi.  Here, cracks and breaks are repaired with a plant-based adhesive lacquer, mixed or marked with silver or gold.  Thus whereas museum repairs of Greek pottery sometimes seek to conceal the break, the Japanese examples, also often applied to pottery imported from China or elsewhere, draw attention to repair.  Moreover, they are often viewed explicitly as symbolic of the passage of time; they are used especially in autumnal tea ceremonies, which mark the cusp of winter, the communal acts of support in preparation such as reroofing, and the awareness of value in a time of impending scarcity.[4]

The emotional effect of this act of repair is clear, and sometimes highlighted by accompanying poetry.  In an essay on kintsugi, Christy Bartlett wrote, ‘Mended ceramics foremost convey a sense of the passage of time. The vicissitudes of existence over time, to which all humans are susceptible, could not be clearer than in the breaks, the knocks, and the shattering to which ceramic ware too is subject . This poignancy or aesthetic of existence has been known in Japan as mono no aware, a compassionate sensitivity, an empathetic compassion for, or perhaps identification with, beings outside oneself. It may be perceived in the slow inexorable work of time (sabi) or in a moment of sharp demarcation between pristine or whole and shattered. In the latter case, the notion of rupture returns but with regard to immaterial qualities, the passage of time with relation to states of being. A mirage of “before” suffuses the beauty of mended objects.’[5]

These examples have made me think about the ambivalence of the notion of fixing.  We like to fix things that are broken, fix problems – it is perhaps a basic human desire.[6]  Perhaps it’s why I want to pick up Ai Weiwei’s vase. But inherent in that notion of fixing is a sense of mastery, our control over the material world, and Ai WeiWei’s act of destruction and the practice of kintsugi both draw attention in different ways to the fragility of this notion. 

Our notion of fixing, as in repairing or making good, is a modern one.  It is a shift in meaning in the 17th and 18th centuries from the earlier semantic concept of ‘fixing in place’ or ‘fastening’ – what they share intriguingly is an inherent desire to capture stability through halting movement or returning something to an original functional state.  To fix in the earlier sense is to make something static, to freeze it – and both breaking, and visible reparation which draws attention to damage, are in opposition to that work of reversing damage, reversing time.  They rather draw attention to time’s flow; they seek to open up possibility rather than close it off.[7]   Situating the material world within its temporal flow is a way of refocusing, fixing our attention if you like to that which is not fixed, but which is constantly loosening.  And it is here, precisely, that new meaning can be found.  As the famous song goes, ‘There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.’

Once one starts thinking about fixing in this way, the process is not so much of resolution as of creation, the process of making anew, and bringing new questions to light, which takes me to a wonderful and well-known passage by Derek Walcott, in his Nobel Prize Lecture.[8]

‘Break a vase, and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole. The glue that fits the pieces is the sealing of its original shape. It is such a love that reassembles our African and Asiatic fragments, the cracked heirlooms whose restoration shows its white scars. This gathering of broken pieces is the care and pain of the Antilles, and if the pieces are disparate, ill-fitting, they contain more pain than their original sculpture, those icons and sacred vessels taken for granted in their ancestral places. Antillean art is this restoration of our shattered histories, our shards of vocabulary, our archipelago becoming a synonym for pieces broken off from the original continent.’

For me, the work of the humanities is driven at least partly by the desire to understand and embrace brokenness and the fragmentary through acts of restoration and restitution.  This is not to devalue the fantastic work of those who are more solution oriented including in our own communities, but it gives credit to our constant need to rethink, fit in another piece of the puzzle, present a new whole.  Breaking and drawing attention to the unevenness of the reconstituted whole has the potentiality of being creative.  It resists fixity and lets new voices be heard.  The crash of the artist’s vase is an answer to the silencing of the poet’s voice.

And that answer takes us back to our curiosity, and to wonder, and my last vase is part of another dialogue across time.  The great American poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti died, aged 101, almost exactly 200 years after John Keats, who was only 25.  In one of his greatest poems he alluded to Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn, in which the lover is perpetually in pursuit of the beloved:

Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,

Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;

       She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,

               For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Ferlinghetti’s great allusive poem I am Waiting plays with the constraints of tradition and the potentiality of breaking through into a new world.  It is as destructive in its humour and irreverence as it is liberating in its incantatory force.  It draws attention to time, voices unheard, injustice and the chance to reimagine the world.  And it offers the hope of breaking another vase and letting wonder flow.

and I am waiting

for the last long careless rapture

and I am perpetually waiting

for the fleeing lovers on the Grecian Urn  

to catch each other up at last

and embrace

and I am awaiting  

perpetually and forever

a renaissance of wonder


[1] Ai Weiwei’s approach to politics and history are intriguingly explored in a comparison with Andy Warhol in M. Delany, E. Shiner (eds.) Andy Warhol Ai Weiwei, National Gallery of Victoria 2015; see especially Gao Minglu, ‘Political and artistic legacy in Ai Weiwei’s art,’ 117-40.

[2] For Ai Qing, see G. B. Lee, China’s Lost Decade: Cultural Politics and Poetics 1978–1990.  In Place of History, Brookline, MA, 2012: 38-77, with thanks to the author.

[3] https://www.laits.utexas.edu/ironagecelts/kleinaspergle3.php

[4] M. Kopplin (ed.) Flickwerk – The Aesthetics of Mended Japanese Ceramics, Cornell – Munster 2008, http://annacolibri.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Flickwerk_The_Aesthetics_of_Mended_Japanese_Ceramics.pdf

[5] C. Bartlett, in Kopplin (ed) The Aesthetics of Mended Japanese Ceramics, 11.

[6] Ottoline Leyser wrote recently “Curiosity, a desire to understanding things, a drive to fix problems and make things work better are very basic human activities that everyone does every day. They involve creativity, imagination, joy, frustration, success, failure and all the things that make us human.” Viewpoint: Research’s ‘lone genius’ image is unhelpful – UKRI

[7] Similar thoughts are provoked by Ai Weiwei’s painting over Neolithic pottery with industrial paints, or Coca-Cola logos.

[8] https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/1992/walcott/lecture/

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