This photograph by Chinese artists Ai Weiwei apparently depicts exactly what the title says: “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn.” Which means the vase we see in the process of destruction was perhaps some 2000 years old. Ai has made something of a specialty of treating ancient objects with what seems insufferable contemporary disdain, including painting a Coca-Cola logo on a Neolithic pot. It is a very brutal form of iconoclasm, the deliberate destruction of objects held by many people to be sacred, for their historical importance and rarity. The purpose seems to be one of confrontation, forcing people question why they so highly value these objects, and also forcing people to consider the vast destruction of cultural heritage perpetrated by the authoritarian government in Beijing. But the loss can’t possibly be worth the transmission of that message, which might well be sent in many other far less destructive ways. The act feels narcissistic, and adolescent, and it greatly diminishes the Ai’s stature as an artist—even given his admirable resistance and persecution by the Chinese government. (Photo courtesy Ai Weiwei)

This 2006 photograph (seen here in detail) by artist Thomas Demand appears to show shattered ceramic pieces on a stairway landing, and so it does. But the photograph is a meticulous recreation of an accident that happened at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, when a visitor accidently stumbled and broke three Qing Dynasty vases. Demand’s photograph reproduces an image made by the museum, to document the accident. The museum’s purpose was essentially documentary and forensic. Demand, on the other hand, is using an image of destruction to document his own defiant act of recreation, in a sense, throwing into the void of loss and wreckage a work of art that insists upon the necessity of moving forward and reconstituting the world. (Copyright Thomas Demand, VG Bild Kunst, Bonn/ARS, New York. Photo courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery/Esther Schipper, Berlin/Spruth Magers, Berlin and London)

SOURCE: Philip Kennicott.