travel - places

A Visit to the Gardner Ceramic Museum in Toronto for the Ai WeiWei: Unbroken Exhibit

The artist breaks ceramics, the artist makes ceramics

Ai Weiwei is the subject of a thousand stories, documentaries, profiles, interviews, Tweets, shares, likes, etc, all of which have created an aura of larger than life fame surrounding his brand. Prisoner, dissident, international exile, bad ass who destroyed the old to create the new (he famously broke Han Dynasty vases) and, literally, gave the middle finger to the cultural icons of the west that would try and claim and write the story of his identity (middle finger pics). His is a great story, and brands are made iconic and enduring by their stories and our collective belief in the power of those brand narratives.

Pots and blobs

Our cultural worship of brands is what makes them important. The Kardashian brand is currently associated with women’s body products and reality television, as opposed to the criminal defence brand of the Kardashian father made famous by news on television. Likewise Ai Weiwei has become a brand name, one that was built upon the idea of resistance to the central power of Beijing, made famous by a combination of news media and social media.

Zodiac in Legos and Colourful Vases

But then there is the actual art, the thing in the institutional white room. When I show up at the Gardiner Museum of Ceramics, I am expecting to see and desire to touch precious ceramics, even though I know I will be separated from the objects. Human contact is disallowed from the objet d’art, objects of beauty are kept at a distance to preserve this veil of value and preciousness. Like at any fashionable nightclub, or celebrity spectacle, I’m  also made to pay and then wait to enter the exhibit. There is a line up (myself and two elderly ladies) guarded by security. At the front of the line up is a wall adorned by a much larger than life portrait of the artist. In fact, an extreme close up of his face has been blown up and turned into a wall wrap to two meters high. 

Portrait of the artist

Inside the exhibition, there is a collection of seemingly random crap, which I know is art because it has been imbued with meaning by the Ai Weiwei brand and placed in the room by the curators. There is a large pile of beans or seeds on the floor. There is a life-size tree, dead, desiccated, held together by bolts and visible hardware. There are more photos of the man himself, smashing vases, smiling. There are vases that have been painted with pop culture references to other brands: Coca-cola. There are paintings, a series of twelve depictions of the Chinese zodiac, made pop art by their use of another brand’s materials, Lego’s famous building blocks instead of oil paint. 

Lego Bricks

There is a shelf with jars and a few ceramic watermelons and a set of jugs, which the description informs me are painted with automotive paint, which imbues them with what exactly? Some kind of referential connection to the factory and production line and Fordism, and the entire industrial complex of America which has been superseded by China? 

There is a bottle of Absolut Vodka in a glass case with a very long piece of text that I don’t bother to drink, but it’s message is certainly not lost on me. I want a drink. 


Lest I forget, there are two marbles doors leaned against the white wall, leading to nowhere bu their own shadows, and a marble surveillance camera on a pedestal, watching no one. On the floor, there are a series of large black blobs that resemble overgrown ink blots, an overgrown Rorsach test that might be questioning your sanity, or offering escape, perfect little metaphorical blackholes that you might wish you could fall right into and through to another dimension. 

People and Art

Also, and perhaps most importantly, there are people, like you and me, and they are all taking selfies of themselves in front and above and below and behind all of these objects, assuring us of their existence and reality and value as objet d’art, and somewhere out there in the ether is R. Mutt dreaming of flushing them all and all this random crap down a very large ready-made toilet in the sky. I highly recommend you go and see for yourself, and stand in the room and take a selfie in front of your zodiac. I’m a year of the pig.

Ai Weiwei: Unbroken runs at the Gardiner Museum until June 9th, 2019, entry is included with price of general admission. Tickets can be purchased online. Exit through the gift shop.

Gardiner Museum

111 Queen’s Park
Toronto, Ontario
Canada, M5S 2C7



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