Upon entering the Grey Art Gallery, visitors encounter what look like giant puddles of crude oil pooling on the wooden floor. Occasionally stepped upon by visitors who neglect to look down, the shiny black “oil” is actually a porcelain installation, Oil Spills (2006), by Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei.
Oil Spills is one of over sixty works in the Grey’s current exhibition, “Landscapes after Ruskin: Redefining the Sublime.” John Ruskin, a 19th-century English art critic, admired the beauties of nature and was a major champion of artist J.M.W. Turner, who once tied himself to a ship’s mast during a storm in order to experience the sublime. “Landscapes after Ruskin” sets its timeline in our Anthropocene, when humans are rarely in awe, and human activities have become a major geophysical force. Curated by artist and photographer Joel Sternfeld, who refers to himself as a “landscapist,” the exhibition explores the ever-changing relationship between humans and nature, even as the natural is becoming closely intertwined with the man-made.
As its title suggests, Oil Spils alludes to the noxious environmental pollution caused by human activities at sea. While the porcelain’s three-dimensionality evokes the heavy, sticky quality of crude oil, the crescent shape in the center sparks a surreal and uncanny feeling. Is that a reflection of the moon in the oil-contaminated sea? This ambiguous sickle-moon ties in with the exhibition’s theme: the moon, the pure and divine emblem of the nature that Ruskin cherished, is one with the oil spills.
A closer look at the medium Ai selected for Oil Spills reveals a deeper environmental concern. At first, using porcelain to imitate crude oil appears humorous, as porcelain’s smooth surface and delicate nature contrast markedly with the sticky, heavy appearance of crude oil. But in fact, the process of manufacturing porcelain—sculpting with gaolin clay, gazing and coloring, firing in a kiln, and putting on the finishing touch—is as harmful to the environment as crude oil. A special type of ceramics, porcelain can cause air pollution and is hazardous to human lungs. Ai created Oil Spills in Jingdezheng, China’s finest imperial porcelain manufacturing center since the Ming dynasty. While Jingdezheng is renowned for its exquisite porcelain art, its environmental problems remained unnoticed until Ai brought them into galleries and museums.
Ai’s interest in porcelain is longstanding. Since Ai is best known in the West for his anti-communist statements, his expertise in the art of porcelain is sometimes overshadowed: he is a master, both traditional and contemporary. Throughout his career, he has created numerous major artworks involving porcelain or other ceramics, including Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995), He Xie (2011), Sunflower Seeds (2010), and Porcelain Rebar (2014), among others. Ai’s first solo exhibition in Turkey, “Ai Weiwei on Porcelain” in 2018, was a conclusive survey of over a hundred porcelain artworks. One of these incorporates over three thousand broken porcelain plates from the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), underscoring Ai’s fervor in collecting porcelain. While recently Ai has hired skilled artisans from Jingdezheng to fabricate monumental porcelain installations, his early works demonstrate his hands-on expertise. For example, in Han Jar Overpainted with Coca-Cola Logo (1995; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), Ai replicated an ancient earthenware jar from the Western Han dynasty (206 B.C–A.D. 9), and marked it with a red Coca-Cola logo. While the logo points to issues in global consumerism, the ceramic jar speaks of Ai’s fine craftsmanship.
Among his other works, Sunflower Seeds, like Oil Spills, makes connections between porcelain and environmental pollution. A former member of the Student Friends Committee, Tamara Schechter, published a highly informative blog post on Sunflower Seeds on the Grey’s blog. In that essay, she recounts the installation’s unforeseen aftermath: originally participatory, the installation had to be quarantined because visitors’ contact with the seeds generated toxic dust. As Schechter remarks, “the enforced distance imbues the work with a different kind of power, even if this wasn’t part of the artist’s original vision for the sculpture.” In other words, Ai’s original vision of a utopian land morphed into a dystopian space.