Keynote Lecture 5

Iconoclasm: From ISIS to Ai Weiwei

Iconoclasm means the destruction of images, which I have to confess to not have known before this lecture. As someone who is working with visual means on a day to day basis i.e. I am an iconophile, it can be quite hard to understand in some instances why anyone would seek to destroy images or in other words why some people are iconophobic.

I understand why people would want to destroy images of a dictator or someone who’s political and social ideals so opposed their own and perhaps that of their country’s that they and others would not want to see their likeness around the place. Politics is extremely emotive. I do not understand why objects and structures from ancient civilisations that I would love to see but probably never will be able to in my lifetime, are being destroyed by people like ISIS. This is something that blows my mind due to the level of ignorance on their part. I don’t understand what response they’re trying to elicit is it just anger they’re after? If so it does work but it raises the question of then what? You’ve made me angry but so what, I’ve had that emotion and the transaction between us is done and it hasn’t been that detrimental to my life it just mildly outraged me for about half an hour. I don’t even understand how it’s meant to get back at western culture because the image they’re destroying isn’t even a western image but I digress.

This idea of the destruction of images, iconoclasm, raises an interesting question though. Why would an a iconophile seek to destroy images? More specifically why would an iconophile like Ai Weiwei destroy an ancient Chinese Han Dynasty urn?

The work being referenced here is Ai Weiwei’s Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn. It is a photographic triptych of different stages of Weiwei dropping the urn. It’s remarkable how carefree his expression is and also in the first panel of the triptych, he is only holding the urn by his very fingertips, there is no particular precaution taken to stop him from dropping it. One moment it’s in his fingers and all he needed to do was simply remove that support as evidenced in the next two panels. I’m not sure how this triptych makes me feel because I think it’s always a great shame for antiquities to be destroyed for any reason, for artwork or not. At the same time however, I also understand that he is an open critic of the Chinese government and I applaud him for it, there are major issues facing China that the government is largely responsible for. The violence against women due to the one child policy, China running it’s ships into Japan’s naval territory, the issues facing Taiwan, the pollution and the growing tension between China and America are a few of the issues facing China at the moment.

There are quite a few claims about what his piece of work is meant to be about and one of these claims is that it is an ironic repetition of Chinese revolutionary images. It is interesting how there is always a desire to replicate images because of their strength or influence. One of the images that always struck me is the repetition of the final image from The Breakfast Club where Judd Nelson’s character John Bender ends the film with this really strong fist pump after they finally get out of detention, is seemingly replicated on this Rage Against the Machine album cover, The Battle of Los Angeles. It may be a coincidence and maybe that image of the fist pump was not all that original to start with but it’s hard to deny that is has impact. I find the replication of this image in particular interesting because of the almost unifying power it has, it feels empowering to see that pose or it does to me at least. And I think this is what Ai Weiwei is having a play with in his triptych, this feeling familiar images and making us wonder what these repeated images through time and social history really mean to us, and it’s exactly why it makes us wonder why someone who, as a creator of images, is carrying out this act of iconoclasm.

The fist pump image from ‘The Breakfast Club’ (strictly speaking this is the actor reproducing the image 30 years later but it’s in the same outfit and location, again it’s interesting that this image was once again repeated.)
The ‘Rage Against the Machine’ album cover for the album ‘The Battle of Los Angeles’.

I found there to be a lot of interesting ideas in this lecture. For example when is iconoclasm iconoclasm and not just vandalism? In my mind iconoclasm hopes to achieve some kind of aim beyond destroying and defacing. I don’t see Ai Weiwei’s photograph’s of him dropping the urn to be vandalism and also it disgusts me, I’m not wholly convinced that ISIS’s destruction of the Assyrian antiques is completely mindless vandalism. Surely they must be trying to achieve something there beyond annoying us. I had been wondering if it’s because they really genuinely think it’s because they think if people see these images of civilisations, cultures and gods gone by that they might think these were real things that should be worshipped, distractions from what the ISIS ideal of religious practice is. It was interested to ponder this because there was something vaguely reminiscent of Plato in this thinking. He admired craftsmanship, but was really scathing towards artists because he understood them to be people who mimicked, distorted, deceived and distracted from the Forms, the perfect beings that lived on a higher plane. Or maybe ISIS only want to destroy.

Either way as somebody who is an iconophile, it deeply saddens me to see images being broken, it did upset me the Ai Weiwei broke that urn, it angers me that ISIS mindlessly destroy and it intrigues me why people seek to destroy images of notorious moments in history but will ask us never to forget them.



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