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ai weiwei destroys han dynasty urn studio
Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995. 3 black and white prints. Each 148 x 121 cm.courtesy of Ai Weiwei

How Ai Weiwei made art out of destruction on Instagram

The artist documented the destruction of his Beijing studio in a 70-part video series

The unexpected demolition of acclaimed Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei’s Beijing studio, which began on August 3, was accompanied by a video on the artist’s Instagram. The video showed the dusty interior of the studio and, in it, a truck piled with packing boxes that movers were to fill with Ai’s artworks, trying to save what they could as demolition machines tore apart the building complex around them.

This video was the first of seventy that the artist published to his Instagram – he has posted frequently to social media for a long time, despite having told Dazed his mixed feelings about its effects – to document the destruction of the studio and the process of salvaging bits of it.

In some of the Instagram videos, structures crumble and collapse after their supports are chipped away by demolition teams; in others, workers presumably employed by the artist pack ceramic sculptures or collect dust from the studio’s ruined walls, perhaps for a future artwork. Some posts simply survey damage already done, such as the concluding, post-mortem-style video posted yesterday (August 11) that pans 360° to show Ai’s former workspace razed to the ground.

What has been most interesting about the demolition and its documentation, though, is Ai’s seemingly calm and precise stance throughout. Though the artist left China for Berlin three years ago, he had inhabited the studio since 2006 and it was still a home base in his native country, housing many artworks too large or complex to easily relocate. Given these personal ties, it is surprising that Ai expresses little emotion in his occasional captions, only using them to succinctly explain what’s happening.

Without personal commentary from Ai Weiwei, though, the videos are free to take on a more political and artistic meaning. The artist is certainly no stranger to governmental oppression; his father, the famous poet Ai Qing, was imprisoned and exiled by various Chinese governments, while the artist himself was secretly and unexplainedly detained for 81 days in 2011 after criticising the Chinese authorities. It is easy, therefore, to see this series of Instagram videos as a depiction of further censorship (adding to the demolition of Ai’s Shanghai studio in 2011).

Like the artist’s infamous destruction of an alleged Han Dynasty urn, which he photographed himself intentionally dropping to the floor, the videos of his studio’s demolition also question what we see as valuable. While all that’s left of his studio is twisted metal and plaster dust, Ai’s ideals – and his ability to communicate these ideals internationally – remain. This sentiment is shared by many of his Instagram commenters, who say the videos “should empower every other artist on Earth” and urge the artist to “keep the flame alive!”.