In a bizarre incident of vandalism imitating art at the Perez Art Museum Miami last Sunday, Maximo Caminero, 51, shattered one of the Han dynasty vases on view in Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei’s traveling survey exhibition, According to What? The act mirrored almost exactly Ai’s own work in which he has destroyed similar vessels.
Yet in doing so, Caminero, a South Florida-based painter struggling at the fringes of the art world, effectively ended his career as an artist.
Caminero’s mistake wasn’t destroying the vase. Instead, it was his tail-between-legs apology published in the Miami Herald on Tuesday in which he effectively admitted he was a vandal, not an a artist. “I’d like to apologize for all the inconvenience I caused Mr. Weiwei,” Caminero said. “I have no right to break the piece of someone else.”
It comes down to intent. Soon after the incident happened, Caminero explained the act as a protest of the exclusion of local artists from the museum’s exhibition roster (a charge museum officials dismiss as untrue). But when he later said he was sorry, his work’s credibility as a political gesture was lost. In the end, it was only Caminero’s actions, not his intentions, that were an exact copy of Ai’s own work.
“Caminero failed to grasp the meaning of Ai’s action,” says Kerry Brougher, Interim Director and Chief Curator of the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, who was the organizing curator of the 2012 American debut of According to What? at the Hirshhorn. Brougher is also co-curator of Damage Control: Art and Destruction Since 1950, the museum’s current survey examining, among other themes, artists who destroy their own work and the works of other artists.
“Ai Weiwei owned the vase he destroyed, which gave him the authority to create an artwork that is itself both an act of destruction and a pointed commentary on the wholesale loss of cultural heritage,” Brougher says. “Ai Weiwei’s work is not a publicity stunt. The destruction of his vase was.”
The vessel in question was one of a group that Ai covered with industrial paint, effectively ruining their status as antiques—they’re about 2,000 years old—but giving them a new significance as part of Ai’s oeuvre. The gesture is typical of the Ai paradox—a middle finger raised at reverence for the past even as his work relies on engagement with Chinese history.
The Ai piece that Caminero effectively replicated, on view next to the scene of Caminero’s crime, was a 1995 black and white photo triptych documenting Ai’s destruction of a Han dynasty urn. The piece is made up of three images: Ai holding the urn, the urn in midair, and finally, the shattered urn at Ai’s feet. In each frame, Ai faces the camera, impassive and nearly immobile. The action’s effect is threefold: it pokes at a society that assigns value to objects, it refers to the Chinese government’s willingness to step on shards of history to further its goals, and it burnishes Ai’s bad-boy reputation. Ai comes off as an obnoxious, but important, figure raging against a totalitarian state.
Caminero just sounds like a jerk, and his charge of criminal mischief almost too lenient. But it’s his backpedaling that irks most. In a moment when art can truly be anything—from serving a Thai dinner to asking the community to paint museum walls—intent is crucial to define what makes a work art.
And what if Caminero had called his actions art, rather than simply apologizing? Then Caminero would have taken his place in a long line of artists who have made new work by mutilating the work of others.
Take brash British artist duo Jake and Dinos Chapman, who bought a copy of Francisco Goya’s print series Disasters of War, one of the artist’s best known, and added googley eyes to Goya’s grim images to create Injury to Insult to Injury in 2004. That “new” artwork, now attributed to the Chapmans, hangs in Damage Control.
“We don’t call the Chapmans vandals,” Brougher says. “They too owned the Goya prints they altered. And the Disasters of War prints themselves are editioned works. More than 1,000 impressions of each plate exist, all made long after Goya’s death. The Chapmans didn’t remove the Disasters of War from cultural circulation.”
Though Goya wasn’t around to protest (or applaud) the Chapman intervention, in 1953 Abstract Expressionist master Willem de Kooning abetted the then-less-well-known artist Robert Rauschenberg by giving him a work on paper that would became the younger artist’s Erased de Kooning Drawing—quite literally, a white page that formerly featured a drawing by the New York School elder. Because of de Kooning’s complicity, Erased de Kooning Drawing could be argued as a work by both artists.
And then there is Caminero, who remains, quietly simply, a hooligan. Last weekend he missed his chance to be anything more.