In Chetna Prakash’s new segment, she will venture deep into the NGV’s Warhol/Weiwei exhibit to discover the differences and similarities of these two great artists.
A week ago the National Gallery of Victoria did something uncharacteristic. It put on an exciting show. Added to which, it isn’t a show curated elsewhere and then shipped here. It is a bona fide NGV product. It has been conceived, conceptualized and curated by the gallery, and it brings together the works of two giants, the American artist Andy Warhol, who died at the age of 59 in 1987, and the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who enters his 59th this year.
This venture is entitled simply Andy Warhol – Ai Weiwei.
Warhol requires no introduction. Even in the unlikely chance that you have not heard of him, his aesthetics and philosophy touch every life experiencing American soft power, that is, the allure of its culture and values. He lives in our embrace of a brash consumerist, media-driven American culture; in our love for money, fashion, media, brands, celebrity, and above all, self.
Every time you gorge on a celebrity’s divorce, near-divorce, plastic surgery, and other miseries while chomping on a packet of chips, you live Warhol’s art. Every time you buy a limited edition Coca-Cola glass and give it place of pride on your desk, Warhol grins in his grave. Every time you vote a participant out of a reality show, fashion quixotic attire from jumble sale odds and ends, or capture random, mundane details of your life on camera and share it with the world, you are acting both muse and protégé to Warhol. You are participating in art, pop art to be exact.
On the surface, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei couldn’t be further from Andy Warhol. His art is steeped in the political questions that dog our lives, or certainly dog his: freedom of expression, human rights, power of the state, capitalism, media, mass culture and how they relate to the individual, that is, you. His art is driven by a purpose, to make us aware of the violence, exploitation, injustices and anger that abounds our world, and to fight back.
In fact, his art is a form of fighting back, because the very act of discussing the state’s power is seen as dissidence in China. Weiwei has been imprisoned, has had blog shut down and passport revoked for daring to debate the government’s actions through his art and social commentary. In turn, he has turned every setback into material for his art, and pushed his cause further.
What can possibly bring these two artists together? An extreme aesthete and an extreme activist? The genius of NGV lies in uncovering the intersecting points of two artists who, on the surface, couldn’t be farther apart.
The biggest intersecting point is how the two artists place themselves right in the middle of their art. Warhol didn’t just comment on the American mass culture, he embodied it. He understood he was a product of American culture and to document, debate and display his own life and self was to discuss America. He didn’t just paint celebrities, he turned his own celebrity into material for his art. He didn’t just explore sexuality in abstraction, he opened his studio to all kinds of sexual experimentation and captured it on film, knowing that his very act of documentation was an act of normalising sexuality. His life was his art.
Ai Weiwei’s life is his art too. Every time the state tries to curtail him, he turns it into material for his art, which publicly questions the state’s abuse of human rights. Here is an example.
When the Chinese government revoked his passport and placed him under surveillance, he announced on social media that he would place a bouquet every day outside his studio for the CCTV tracking him until his passport was returned. Weiwei fulfilled this promise by tweeting the photograph every day from 2013 until his passport was returned in 2015. Today, the montage of the bouquets is itself an artwork on the walls of NGV, and bouquets made out of porcelain – a material prized in China – has inspired more art. Every step of the process is art.
There are other similarities too: the transgressive nature of their art, their need to push boundaries, their use of everyday objects to question our relationship with them, their incessant engagement with popular culture, their obsessive need to document their own lives and cities and the incredible versatility of their artistic oeuvre that moves from canvas to sculpture, film, objects, music, documentary, and media (mass media for Warhol and social media for Weiwei).
NGV presents these similarities in a neatly packaged exhibition that is divided into 10 themes, including the use of icons in their art, their engagement with celebrity and social media, the use of everyday objects in their art, their exploration of each other’s cultures (meaning Warhol in China vs Weiwei in New York) and more. There is even a gallery dedicated for their mutual love for cats, connecting the artists to our current obsession with cat memes.
In putting such a complex exhibition together, NGV has thrown us a challenge. The exhibition asks us to come and feel, learn and debate both art and our relationship with it. It asks us to explore how our own lives inspire art and how while the artworks remain inside galleries, the waves they generate touch the lives of people and transform them.
I have decided to meet the challenge head on. So for every week that the exhibition is on, I will explore one aspect of the show for The Big Smoke. My aim is to see how many connections can I find between my own life and Warhol’s and/or Weiwei’s life and works.
Follow this journey and you might find your own connections and relationship with art.
Until next week.
For more Information on the Exhibition, follow this link