Yves Klein and Ai Weiwei: Icons and Iconoclasm

by Chloé Wolifson

Dropping a Han dynasty urn 1995 AI Weiwei (Chinese, 1957-) Gelatin silver photograph on paper Three sheets: 180 x 169.5cm (each comp.) Purchased 2006. The Queensland Government's Gallery of Modern Art Acquisitions Fund Collection Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane

Leap into the Void 1960 Yves KLEIN (French, 1928–1962); Harry Shunk (German, 1924–2006); Janos Kender (Hungarian, 1937–1983) Gelatin silver print 25.9 x 20 cm Purchase, The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Gift through Joyce and Robert Menschel, 1992 (1992.5112) Shunk-Kender © Roy Lichtenstein Foundation Collection Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Ai Weiwei’s broken vessel in Dropping a Han dynasty urn (1995) lies like a full stop at the end of a matter-of-fact sentence: You value things, I break them. Yves Klein, on the other hand, forms a hyphen with his Leap into the Void (1960), leaving his sentence open ended with possibilities -

Here we see two iconic black and white photographs, both taken in the 20th century, 35 years apart. In the earlier image the artist is suspended mid-air, having leaped from a first-floor ledge. The second shows an artist captured during three moments in time, in the process of dropping a vessel which, in the third frame, lies broken on the ground. Significantly the artist responsible appears in both works – their bodies not only present but fundamental to the actions depicted.

Ai is challenging cultural authority, Klein the laws of the universe. Both artists are tapping into something latent, primal – the desire to flout the laws of society and nature. What lies on the other side of these destructive actions?

Perhaps Ai’s act of iconoclasm is an answer to the question of original creation, opening him up to a true creative freedom. The falling urn is Ai’s leap into the void – the only way to find out what’s on the other side. However Ai’s practice is not only one of destruction. His practice often finds him salvaging abandoned and destroyed cultural relics, always questioning the supposedly intrinsic and objective nature of value, particularly in relation to his native China and its cultural heritage. Ai destroys in order to create, and here he is exploding a fetishised object into a wider dialogue about value and meaning. However he is still complicit in the market he seeks to question, creating an editioned photograph out of the urn’s proverbial ashes. Contemporary replaces antique – a shattering of the cultural old guard.

On the other hand, Klein’s image was reproduced in his Sunday broadsheet Dimanche to be sold at newsstands and given out at a gallery press conference. Klein’s intentions for his image were more accessible and less market-conscious, however both photographs represent an approach to action inherent in each artist’s practice, and highlight the importance of photography as documentation in that context. Ai has said that his gesture here is “powerful only because someone thinks it’s powerful and invests value in the object.”[1] Klein’s photograph can be read similarly because of the emphasis placed by the viewer on the vulnerability of the human body, where in fact this is what Klein seeks to transcend via his iconic act.

Both Ai and Klein stand for a practice that moves beyond object-making, and so these images can be viewed as a signifier for each artist’s work. Ai’s preoccupation with cultural and political activism often arises out of circumstance but always runs parallel to the themes in the elegantly executed objects which are a vital feature of his oeuvre. The objects and images Klein produced are conduits for the viewer into experiencing the void, “an immaterial reality beyond the limits of human vision”[2] which formed the conceptual root of his practice. Klein created his first artwork in 1947 whist lying on a beach in Nice with artist Arman and poet Claude Pascal, envisaging himself signing the sky – what he saw as his first and largest blue painting.[3] It is a pure engagement with this idea which is sought by the other works he produced after that moment on the beach, including this attempt to levitate.[4]

One notable difference in the approach of the two artists is the moments they have selected and omitted as photographic evidence of their actions. We see Ai holding the vase, we see it mid-air and then shattered on the ground. Ai looks directly at the viewer, presents the vase, releases it and stands motionless and emotionless as it lies broken beneath him. Throughout this sequence his gaze challenges our own reactions to the act, giving no hint of his own thoughts from which to proceed. Klein’s work, conversely, shows only the moment of flight – no apprehensive moment before, no disastrous consequences after. Klein’s face reveals elation at the emotional possibilities of his leap. He looks towards the sky, expecting that at any moment he will be soaring towards it (the reality of his judo friends wielding a tarp below remains hidden from the viewer in the final photomontage and Klein does not let on). Both artists have placed the consequences of their actions with us and our reactions.

The act of falling is momentarily freeing but ultimately destructive. There is an openness and lightness to Klein’s work which is absent in Ai’s, however both works retrospectively embody a simultaneous optimism and fatalism. Yves Klein’s untimely death from heart failure in 1962[5] was prefaced by this fearless image. Ai Weiwei, like the vase in the central image in Dropping a Han dynasty urn, remains in limbo as the Chinese government restricts his movements and prevents him from continuing the activities that have defined his practice.[6] Where Klein was “motivated by the idea of presenting absence as a conduit to reaching a higher, transcendental plane of existence”[7] Ai’s image brings us crashing back to earth.


[1] Tiffin, Sarah. Refined Anarchy in The 5th Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art exhibition cataogue, Brisbane: Queensland Art Gallery, pub. 2006, p.52

[2] Rorimer, Anne. New Art in the 60s and 70s – Redefining Reality, London: Thames and Hudson, pub. 2001, p.13

[3] Moquay, Daniel; Vergne, Philippe; Brougher, Kerry: Opening-day talk: Yves Klein: With the Void, Full Powers on Walker Art Centre YouTube Channel, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8U_wMyL1VlA, accessed August 2012.

[4] Arnason, H.H. & Prather, Marla F. A History of Modern Art, London: Thames & Hudson, pub. 2001, p. 547

[5] Collings, Matthew. This is Modern Art, London: Seven Dials, pub. 2000, p. 174

[6] Branigan, Tanya. Ai Weiwei firm to be closed down by Chinese Authorities in The Guardian, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/oct/01/ai-weiwei-firm-closed-china, accessed October 2012

[7] Rorimer, op. cit., p. 230

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This piece was written as part of the 2012 Firstdraft Emerging Writers Programme.

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One Response to Yves Klein and Ai Weiwei: Icons and Iconoclasm

  1. Pingback: Firstdraft Emerging Writers Program 2012 | Chloé Wolifson

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