Ai Weiwei Blossom detail, 2014, from the project @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz, Alcatraz Island, 2014–2015.
Photo : Robert Divers Herrick, courtesy of the artist

Floral Resistance to Authoritarianism and Incarceration in Porcelain Installations by Ai Weiwei and Cai Guo-Qiang

Alex Burchmore
Neither flowers nor porcelain are usually considered political, yet in two works by Ai Weiwei and Cai Guo-Qiang — Blossom (2014) and Transience I (Peony) (2019)—the fragility of ceramic bouquets belies a potent critique of incarceration and authoritarian rule. Blossom was one of seven works commissioned for @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz (2014–2015), transforming the sinks, toilets, and bathtubs in the prison’s hospital ward into a vision of hope. Transience I (Peony) was created for Cai Guo-Qiang: The Transient Landscape (2019) at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, in conjunction with Terracotta Warriors: Guardians of Immortality (2019). Scorched with gunpowder and piled on the floor of a gallery adjacent to the ancient sentinels, Cai’s porcelain peonies underlined the hubris of the First Emperor’s all- encompassing desire for eternal life by celebrating the beauty of decay. Although the delicacy of these works might provoke accusations of ornamentalism, their site-specific associations imbued each with an incisive social and political charge.

Flowers and porcelain are often disdained for their fragility, frivolity, and affectation. Yet there is a quiet strength in the vulnerability of a fresh blossom, or the equilibrium of a tapering vase, that can inspire those who have been forced to endure persecution and prejudice. As products of natural forces, they offer a concentrated metaphor for the cyclic rhythm of birth, death, decay, and renewal. The vanity of our place in these cycles and “the web of irreconcilable doubt and conflict”1 1 - Thomas H. Garver, Flora: Contemporary Artists and the World of Flowers (Wisconsin: Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum, 1995), 11. 10. .in which our lives are enmeshed are laid bare by the realization that “only a single, small step … separates full, luxuriant bloom from wilting and death.”2 2 - Hans-Michael Herzog, The Art of the Flower: The Floral Still Life from the 17th to the 20th Century (Zurich: Edition Stemmle, 1996), 10. 11. .At the same time, shaping clay into complex forms or arranging colourful blossoms provides a welcome reassurance of our ability to create order. Flowers and porcelain are emblems of a human need for sustenance and fulfilment — the table and garden, in their promise of abundance, are “reflections of paradise [et] an ultimately desirable state of being.”3 3 - Edward Lucie-Smith,Flora: Gardens and Plants in Art and Literature (New York: Watson-Guptill, 2001), 12. .These sanctified spaces of cultivation and community are also a stage for everyday rituals of commemoration, family, and friendship in which flowers and porcelain serve as crucial tokens of remembrance.

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This article also appears in the issue 99 - Plants

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