Yun-Fei Ji and Ai Weiwei are both Chinese artists who protest the country’s headlong rush into modernity.

During China’s Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976, Mao unleashed a campaign to erase “the Four Olds” from Chinese culture: old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas. But the assault on China’s ancient traditions actually commenced at the turn of the 20th century, and again when vestiges of the nation’s feudal era were suppressed or destroyed during the 1949 Communist Revolution. As the ancient Confucian social system crumbled, China’s 2,000 year culture gave way to Westernization, communism and capitalism.

Li Xiangning, a professor of history and criticism at Tongji University in Shanghai, expresses the opinion of many Chinese intellectuals when he comments, “There is a growing sense that we need to slow down our pursuit of money and development. Ninety percent of Chinese society is charging toward the future at an incredible pace, but there must be a few of us who cast an eye backward. If we look to history and tradition, we might be able to rethink what we’ve done in the past two or three decades.”27

a. Yun-Fei Ji and Ai Weiwei are both Chinese artists who protest the country’s headlong rush into modernity. Weiwei’s approach, however, is as irreverent as Ji’s is reverent. In 1995 this prominent Chinese artist addressed the campaign waged against Chinese heritage by intentionally dropping an authentic Han Dynasty urn, letting it smash to the ground. This landmark work takes the form of a photographic triptych titled Urn. It depicts the willful destruction of a ‘museum quality’ urn that had survived for 5,000 years in pristine condition. Not surprisingly, the act was condemned as the diabolical destruction of a treasured artifact by an outraged public. However, the work invites several interpretations. Was Weiwei displaying indignation? Or was he asserting the folly of valuing artifacts simply because they are old? The fact is that the kind of urn that he destroyed was once as common as plastic buckets are today.

Consider that Ji’s style and material choices revive China’s rich cultural traditions, while Weiwei’s style and material choices ignore these traditions. How do medium and style affect your interpretation of these works of art?

b. The history of artistic styles is, to a great extent, linked to the history of humanity’s technological advancements. The invention of bronze, for example, enabled sculptors to create shapes that were more complex than would have been possible in marble or clay. It was the invention of bronze that made it possible for Classical artists to produce the detailed, life size human forms with extended appendages that define the era’s masterworks.

Even the packaging of paint constitutes a significant technological advance that impacted the production of art. The esteemed artist, Pierre-August Renoir, summarizes its influence by stating, “Without tubes of paint, there would have been no Impressionism”28 The paint tube, first invented in 1841, was transportable. As a result, artists were liberated from studio confinement. They could both sketch and paint outdoors, and make the spontaneous color choices that distinguish Impressionism.

Likewise, the style and medium used by Yun-Fei Ji to create Migrants of the Three Gorges Dam provide vivid accountings of the technological advancements that occurred within China. For example, the mulberry paper that Ji used was invented in China in 105 AD.

Prior to this, artists painted on silk. Ji’s spontaneous brush work reflects the shift that occurred in response to the absorbency of paper. It contrasts with the meticulous precision that suited non-absorbent silk.

Eduardo Kac’s biotope, Steiner and Lenzlinger’s The Office, Simon Starling’s watercolor in Tabernas Desert Run, and Terike Haapoja’s Community are other examples of the impact of a newly introduced medium or process upon style. Choose any one of these artworks and describe how the medium determines the work’s appearance. Compare it to Ji’s Three Gorges Dam.