Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (on Presidential Inauguration Weekend)

The iconoclastic art of China's Ai Weiwei overlooks the parade route Obama will soon walk.

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Maria Bryk/Newseum

Prohibited from leaving his native country by the Chinese Communist Party, artist and activist Ai Weiwei has remained far from "Ai Weiwei: According to What?," the retrospective of his work currently on exhibit at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C. But in the days leading up to Monday's presidential inauguration, the artist's presence is being made visible in the nation's capital in another way.

Starting last Thursday night and continuing through tonight, images from Ai's 1995 work "Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn" are being projected onto the outside wall of the Newseum, overlooking the Pennsylvania Avenue route that President Obama will walk Monday afternoon. The controversial work is striking enough on its own, but takes on new depth in the context of this weekend's pomp, circumstance, and democratic transition.

Beginning at 7 p.m. each night, the work—made up of three black and white images in which Ai drops and breaks a roughly 2,000-year-old urn—is superimposed onto a 74-foot-tall marble tablet inscribed with the words of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The three sections of the iconic triptych are presented in slideshow form and interspersed with quotes from Ai on the value of freedom and the importance of challenging the establishment.

Projected out of the back of a black truck across the street from the museum using the simple magic of Apple Keynote, Ai Weiwei's visage is not the first to have graced the wall of the Newseum. A number of other images—including that of Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III this past August—have also been projected onto the Newseum's façade.

The juxtaposition of Ai's words and image over the words of the First Amendment is fitting for an artist whose work and personal experiences have come to symbolize the universal right to freedom of expression. Over the past few years, Ai's political activism has led him to be jailed without charge, beaten by Chinese police, and held on house arrest. His oppression has drawn increased attention to his work in recent years, elevating him to the ranks of the contemporary art superstars. "I've always believed it is essential for contemporary artists to question established assumptions and challenge beliefs. This has never changed," Ai says in one of the projection quotes.

While Ai's association with freedom of expression seems an appropriate reminder of the United States' founding ideals, these particular images of the destruction of a historical object raise interesting questions on a weekend steeped in tradition and pageantry. The act captured by the triptych seems to undermine the value of history and the significance of tradition.

But Deborah Horowitz, director of curatorial administration and publications for the Hirshhorn, pointed out to me that by putting the vase front and center, the work also draws attention to history. Ai's piece evokes the growing phenomenon in China of destroying historical cultural sites to make way for new development. The sight of the breaking of the urn may lead American viewers to ask to what extent America has undergone a similar process.

The piece also plays into the idea that the inauguration of a new administration provides the opportunity for change and new beginnings. Horowitz said that with the Presidential Inauguration, as in Ai's work, "in some ways you're destroying in order to create something new."

"It's a way of looking forward and looking back," she said.

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Maria Bryk/Newseum