Chetna Prakash discusses how Andy Warhol & Ai Weiwei’s work helps us understand the evolution of media in the 21st Century.
Have you ever stood in from an artwork and just thought “What the fuck?” I have. I have often wondered what I’m doing here – I have two kids, a full-time job, a full-time husband, and a full laundry basket, kitchen sink and rubbish bin waiting for me at home. So, why am I spending my time blinking at this… thing?
I don’t know about you but, over the years, I have found my answer.
I’ve stood in front of Mondrian’s cubes (1920s), Pollock’s drips (1950s), Koon’s shiny balloon dogs (1990s) and Delvoye’s giant shit-making machine Cloaca (2000), not just because it was a sensory experience (including watching food being digested in a machine and coming out as poop) but also, upon reflection, they invariably help me understand the times we live in a bit better.
Mondrian’s neat cubes capture on canvas the coldness of modernism: the idea that there exists some form of supreme, machine-like, timeless, spaceless, context-less beauty that works for all. Pollock’s mad drippy paintings speak of America’s individualism, where individual achievement and self-fulfillment trumps all. Koon’s shiny balloon dogs show how we have embraced child-like silliness as a legitimate emotion for adults. And Delvoye’s shit-maker literally symbolises post-modern irony, where everything is shit, but it’s ok as long as we can smirk about it. That I can have these profound reflections in a matter of minutes, accompanied by a sensory experience, is an intellectual high.
Of course, some artists do it better than others. Both Warhol and Weiwei are masters at it. So how what epiphanies can we have from the massive Andy Warhol-Ai Weiwei exhibition at the NGV that brings together 300 works by the two artists? In this article, I will discuss one.
Warhol and Weiwei’s works are 3D representations of one the biggest disruption of our times: why new media powered by the Internet hit mainstream media in the gut.
Warhol’s Three Marilyns, which is a part of the exhibition, perfectly illustrate the problems of 20th-century media. In this work, Warhol used a cropped publicity still from the film Niagara as a prototype to create three Monroe faces. (Over his lifetime, he created endless loops of Monroe variations). The meaningless repetition of that one media image bleaches the humanity, until her face is a caricature for our entertainment.
Isn’t that exactly how much of last century’s mass media operated?
The media saturated people with images of Monroe and her likes and the stories of their romances, marriages, divorces and other tragedies. The endless repetition desensitised us to their pain and humanity. They became entertainment. Later in a series called Death & Disaster, Warhol gave similar treatment to media images of accidents, riots, protests and political events, showing how the media turned them into spectacles, largely for our entertainment.
Warhol’s insistence on only using media images also pointed to how the media controlled the images and stories we heard. Everything we knew of an event or a person was what read/saw/heard in the news. There was one universal narrative about events and people, and the media created it.
It was precisely this control that the Internet, and later social media, smashed by giving each one of us the power to tell our own stories. Ai Wei Wei’s art reveals that to us.
Many of Weiwei’s works, such as 258 Fake (2011) and Leg Gun (2014), are basically hundreds of images flickering on digital screens. They are made by images posted/tweeted by Weiwei and his millions of followers. Together they show, how social media has fragmented the meta-story or meta-image that mass media previously built and controlled. Today, we are constantly bombarded by millions of images, and which one will go viral, is controlled by us collectively. From passive consumers of images and stories, we have become active producers and promoters of them. We decide what takes our fancy: celebrities, earthquakes or cats.
One of Weiwei’s most celebrated works is Citizens’ Investigation (2009). On May 12, 2008, a big earthquake shook Sichuan province of China. Among the victims were over 5000 schoolchildren. The local authorities would not divulge their identities. A prolific blogger, Weiwei launched a citizen’s investigation on his blog calling for volunteers to find out the names of the students who died. Exactly a year later, Weiwei revealed the names of 5212 schoolchildren, whose deaths had gone unacknowledged by the Chinese authorities, in a video on his blog. (Fifteen days later, the Chinese government had his blog shut down).
Citizen’s Investigation is not simply names of dead children silently rolling on a computer screen. It is also Weiwei’s orchestration of the campaign. It is the simplicity of his call (let’s collect names of the dead children), his involvement of ordinary Chinese, and the spectacle of releasing the video on the anniversary of the earthquake in defiance of the authorities.
(Incidentally, he also collected the bent steel bars from the school buildings sites, had them straightened, and presented them as an artwork around the world. The straightening of the twisted bars act as a physical metaphor for straightening of a twisted story.)
Weiwei’s art works, sometimes referred to as social sculptures, basically show us how the flow of information can no longer be controlled by one agency – whether that is the Chinese government or Newscorp / Fairfax. The stories are ours to tell as a collective, and we decide where and how we want to tell it.
To put it simply, if Marilyn Monroe were alive today, she would be a Kardashian, a self-sculpted selfie celebrity.
So there we are. The essential history of mass media in a few delightful artworks for just $26.50 per person.
Now, excuse me, but I have some laundry to do.
Need a refresher? You can catch Chetna’s first article in the series here.