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In this week’s installment Chetna Prakash examines what Warhol and Weiwei’s works tell us about their respective countries.
What if I told you that Andy Warhol predicted that the crude, brash, look-at-me Donald Trump would one day be a popular candidate aspiring for world domination via the American presidency?
He didn’t. But his art did. The story goes that an art dealer Muriel Latow told Warhol: “The thing that means more to you and that you like more than anything else in the world is money. You should paint pictures of money.” Warhol said, “That’s wonderful”, and he did. Over the years, he created several stark paintings and prints of the dollar symbol and dollar bills. There is nothing subtle about these works: they are literally large dollar symbols painted on canvas and prints of one and two dollar bills.
Later in his book THE Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again) he explained these works. “I like money on the wall,” he wrote. “Say you were going to buy a $200,000 painting. I think you should take that money, tie it up, and hang it on the wall. Then when someone visited you, the first thing they would see is the money on the wall.”
In recognizing the crass love for money in himself and others, and confronting us with it in all its crudeness, he revealed something about America. The unabashed reverence of money above everything else. Many films, books and works of art have explored this love but none as crudely as Warhol and his dollar paintings. It is a crudeness that is only matched by Donald Trump and his vulgar references to his billions. That he is the leading Republican candidate is a tribute to Warhol’s America.
Good artists invariably capture something intangible about the societies they live in. Sometimes, it is direct and intentional. Other times, it appears unconsciously in their exploration of society and of themselves as a product of it.
There is much to be learnt about America and China at the exhibition Andy Warhol Ai Weiwei currently on show at the National Gallery of Victoria. After all, Andy Warhol was the quintessential 20th-century American artist and Ai Weiwei is the most significant Chinese artist in the world today.
Warhol’s works tell us many things about America: its love for money, celebrity, fame, guns and violence. He wasn’t subtle about it. He literally hung images of dollar bills, celebrity faces, guns, electric chairs and riots on gallery walls to make his point. Invariably, he would find these images in newspapers, advertisements, and logos thus telling us something else about the US: the central role played by media in American life. (I discuss this more in a previous article in this series).
But for me, the most curious way in which America seeped into Warhol’s works was in his treatment of individual faces. He painted them, printed them, captured them on polaroid and made endless videos of them. But each time, the faces did nothing but blankly stare back at the camera. Warhol worked hard to erase all meaning from the faces. But would you go to such lengths to render faces meaningless, unless you believed that individual faces had some meaning to begin with? That every face, and every life, has something interesting and different to tell?
Americans believe that, and we call this value American individualism, the belief that every individual identity is exceptional and worth celebrating.
It is only when you contrast it to Weiwei’s works – and what they tell of China – that can we fully appreciate what Warhol and the Americans took for granted.
Weiwei also uses a single motif repeatedly to create large monumental works: over 5000 schoolchildren’s names on a wallpaper for Citizen’s Investigation (2009), 1001 Qing Dynasty Chairs for Fairytale (2007), or 100,000,000 sunflower seeds for an eponymous artwork in 2010. (The first can be viewed at the exhibition). But Weiwei never lets us forget that whole is always the sum of its parts.
The 5000 names belong to schoolchildren who lost their lives in the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, and whose names the government wouldn’t reveal. The 1001 chairs represented 1,001 ordinary Chinese that he took to Germany for that show, and whose first journey out of China he was documenting. Each of the 100,000,000 porcelain sunflower seeds has been handcrafted and are unique. In the hands of Weiwei, each name, chair or sunflower seed gets imbued with meaning and dignity. By drawing deliberate attention to the individual, he upends China’s communist value, which places the individual secondary to the nation, his needs, desires and identity subsumed into those of the nation’s.
Then, there is the cold rage. Weiwei’s deliberate smashing, disfiguring and reconfiguring of old Chinese artifacts, as he does in the photographic triptych Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995). In three photographs he holds, drops and smashes a nearly 2000-year-old vase. In his series Coloured Vases, he plunges more Han Dynasty vases into tubs of industrial paint and sets them up for our viewing. It hurts to see him do that, and we are confronted with questions. What is the value of the old in our lives? How much history is worth preserving? What happens to the old when you daub it with a new colour for the sake of superficial modernity? Weiwei has no answers to offer. But what he points out is that in China, no one is even bothering to ask these questions as they ruthlessly destroy old buildings, cultures and ways of life in their drive for a shiny, new modern country.
Warhol’s America is already disappearing. The 21st century is that of China’s ascension. Which is why Weiwei is important. Nearly 30 years ago, Warhol’s dollar symbol paintings predicted the horrifying spectre of Donald Trump’s rise. Perhaps if we pay more attention to Weiwei’s rage and determination to imbue the individual with meaning, we may stop some other future horror from unfolding.