Behind the Smashing of a Vase


This article by Nick Madigan on the smashing of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s vase by Dominican artist Máximo Caminero appeared in The New York Times.

Any new museum can expect teething problems.

The Pérez Art Museum Miami, named for a local developer, had seen its share of contention long before its opening two months ago on an imposing site overlooking Biscayne Bay. But nothing has quite equaled the stir that followed Sunday’s news that a valuable vase painted by the Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei had been deliberately destroyed by a visitor in what the man later said was an act of protest.

“It hasn’t been the highlight of my career,” Thomas Collins, the museum’s director, said in an interview on Tuesday. “This was a deplorable act of criminal vandalism, and to say anything further is to dignify the action as if it had merit.”

The police arrested Mr. Caminero and charged him with criminal mischief. After spending 24 hours in jail, he was released after posting bail and faces up to five years in prison. The vase was one of a group of 16 in an installation titled “Colored Vase,” part of a retrospective exhibition of Mr. Ai’s work that has been on view since the Pérez museum’s lavish opening in December. Mr. Caminero said in an interview on Tuesday that he had been protesting what he said was the museum’s exclusion of local artists in its exhibitions, a charge the museum strongly denies.

Reached by telephone in China, Mr. Ai said he had initially understood the vase to have been broken accidentally. But then he read a news report that the vase in Miami had been deliberately smashed, and he questioned Mr. Caminero’s expressed reason for doing so.

“The argument does not support the act,” Mr. Ai said. “It doesn’t sound right. His argument doesn’t make much sense. If he really had a point, he should choose another way, because this will bring him trouble to destroy property that does not belong to him.”

Mr. Ai said he had no idea whether the vase could be fixed, or whether its loss would be covered by insurance. But he said he was not overly distressed by the breakage. “I’m O.K. with it, if a work is destroyed,” Mr. Ai said. “A work is a work. It’s a physical thing. What can you do? It’s already over.”

The vases are the property of Mr. Ai, and he lent them to the traveling exhibition “Ai Weiwei: According to What?” It opened at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington last year, and after Miami, it will go to the Brooklyn Museum — minus one vase.

Mr. Ai, 56, has become China’s best-known artist and has been under intense pressure from the authorities there to curtail his advocacy efforts, which included a lengthy investigation he undertook into shoddy construction that contributed to the deaths of thousands of schoolchildren in their classrooms during the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan Province. Mr. Ai was detained for 81 days in 2011 on tax evasion charges, and remains subject to travel restrictions.

Mr. Collins, the Pérez museum’s director, said the artist’s vase was covered by insurance and that his staff was still in the process of determining its value. Since it has never been sold, he said, there was no immediate way of ascertaining its worth. Reports that the vase is worth $1 million are baseless, he said, and probably stemmed from guesswork by the police at the time of Mr. Caminero’s arrest.

A group of nine Neolithic colored vases painted by Mr. Ai in 2007 sold at Sotheby’s in London in 2012 for $156,325, a price that included the buyer’s premium.

The museum has plenty of security guards, Mr. Collins said, and three were in the vicinity when the vase was broken. “Unless you take extraordinary measures that in some ways run counter to the mission of the museum, there’s no real way to prevent this kind of thing,” Mr. Collins said. “It’s always a challenge to balance concern for the safety of the work with the public’s experience of the work.”

Reached at his studio here, Mr. Caminero said in Spanish that for 30 years local artists had been largely absent from major shows in Miami museums. “We have a lot of artists here,” he said. “They need to be appreciated. No one has been knocking on doors to see how many artists there are here. Well, there are 400 of them, and they need to be discovered — that’s the thing.”

While he would not discuss, on his lawyer’s advice, the facts of the incident, he said he admired Mr. Ai and felt “very regretful that I did something to hurt him.”

“No one has the right to destroy the work of anyone,” said Mr. Caminero, a native of the Dominican Republic who has long lived in Miami. “But it’s possible that this served to help other artists. In the meantime, I’ll have to pay the consequences.”

Mr. Caminero seems to be the latest in a long line of those who have defaced or destroyed art for religious, political or aesthetic reasons. Last summer, a man glued a photograph onto a painting by John Constable at the National Gallery in London, while in 2012, another used a permanent marker to scrawl graffiti on a Rothko painting at Tate Modern in London. Tate Britain later devoted an exhibition to the subject,  “Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm,” which closed just last month.

Mr. Caminero suggested that he had been inspired by one of Mr. Ai’s most famous works, “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn,” a series of three photographs, on exhibit here, in which he dispassionately shatters a priceless ancient Chinese vase to make a point about the valuation of art and everyday objects as well as the fragility of cultural objects. The Pérez museum’s description of the photographs says that Mr. Ai dropped the urn, dated from 206-200 B.C., on the floor “to express the notion that new ideas and values can be produced through iconoclasm.”

Mr. Caminero said on Tuesday that the primary reason for his destruction of the vase was “an act of solidarity with Mr. Ai” to draw attention to his situation, as a dissident, with Chinese authorities. “When I saw the installation, what I saw was a cry for help from Mr. Ai,” he said.

While Mr. Ai and other contemporary artists, like Jake and Dinos Chapman — who have drawn clown faces and puppy heads on Goya etchings — have defaced art objects to make new art (and a point), one difference from the Miami incident is that these artists owned the works before they ruined them.

The Pérez Art Museum Miami grew out of what was originally known as the Center for Fine Arts, an exhibition space downtown that had no collection of its own. When the institution was rechristened as the Miami Art Museum in 1996, it “dedicated itself to collecting and exhibiting international art of the 20th and 21st centuries with a special emphasis on art of the Americas,” according to the museum’s website.

Much of the museum’s current 1,800-piece collection has been donated, with 110 works coming from Jorge M. Pérez, a local developer whose $40 million gift of cash and art in 2011 precipitated a name change in his honor. Four board members resigned in response to this change, and the museum, built on city land and partly financed by $100 million in bonds, was pelted with protests and questions over its civic mission. Even so, Mr. Pérez’s gift of artworks provided the museum with some of its most important acquisitions of Latin American artists, including works by Diego Rivera, Beatriz González and Wifredo Lam. Mr. Collins said on Tuesday that the museum has “a very robust program” dedicated to showing and promoting local artists; he added that they form part of not only the permanent collection but also of exhibits currently on view.

“No one has complained to me about our engagement with the very fine local artists in our community here,” he said. “It is always part of our strategy here to exhibit the best work of our Miami artists as well as that from the rest of the world.”

For the original report go to

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