The NGV [National Gallery of Victoria] has an outstanding exhibition at the moment (on until April 24th) of work from And Warhol and Ai Weiwei. The gallery’s publicity says:
Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei, developed by the NGV and The Andy Warhol Museum, with the participation of Ai Weiwei, explores the significant influence of these two exemplary artists on modern art and contemporary life, focusing on the parallels, intersections and points of difference between the two artists’ practices.
I have to show my ignorance ~ what I knew about Ai Weiwei could have been written on a postage stamp, and Andy Warhol only something slightly bigger. Now I understand that you have to know the context of their work to appreciate all the complexities and layers. For example one work of Ai’s was simply a packet of infant formula. At first glance you go “Huh?”. Knowing that it was a packet of the formula laced with melamine that killed 6 babies and hospitalised 54,000 you go “Ahhh”.
Much of Ai’s art is driven by his need to expose corruption in the Chinese Government. This is from his entry in Wikipedia
As a political activist, he has been highly and openly critical of the Chinese Government‘s stance on democracy and human rights. He has investigated government corruption and cover-ups, in particular the Sichuan schools corruption scandal following the collapse of so-called “tofu-dreg schools” in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. In 2011, following his arrest at Beijing Capital International Airport on 3 April, he was held for 81 days without any official charges being filed; officials alluded to their allegations of “economic crimes”.
After that arrest his Beijing studio was under constant video surveillance. Ai’s response was unusual. He put a bicycle outside the gate, in sight of the camera. Each morning a fresh bunch of flowers was placed in the basket and the photographed. The resulting work is a beautiful wallpaper of bouquets but knowing the back ground gives it an edge.
The Wikipedia quote above mentions the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Ai was horrified at the loss of life, especially the number of children who were killed because of the shoddy construction of schools. He attempted to find out the names of the children who had died. This is the story, from the caption of his digital wallpaper Names of the student earthquake victims found by citizens’ investigation 2008-11
The Chinese government refused to release the names of the deceased or answer allegations of faulty building construction in government schools. In response Ai launched a ‘Citizens’ Investigation’ to uncover the names of the student victims and record details about their schools and families. With the help of 100 volunteers, the investigation confirmed the names of 5192 students who perished in the disaster. Naming each individual victim is Ai’s attempt to dignify the individuals.
The photo below shows the corner of a room, with the wallpaper with the names of the students on the right hand side. Look how small the writing has to be to fit in all those names. The rectangular box is a film projected onto the back wall. The film showed Ai creating a sculpture made from the reinforcing rods salvaged from the earthquake rubble.
Ai Weiwei chooses unusual ways to make his art. I loved the little room created out of Lego blocks. On the walls, floor and ceiling were quotes from Victorians expressing ideas of equality.
Often he made me smile, like Safe Sex, created in the 1980s at the height of the AIDS epidemic.
Then there is his shocking destruction of Chinese artefacts. He takes neolithic pots and dips them in house paint, he films himself dropping a Han dynasty urn, and then turns that into a tryptic made from Lego. These are acts that made me cry out, until I understood the political activism behind. Ai is drawing attention to the greater Government cultural desecration that has gone on and continues still. He shows film footage of miles of rubble where houses and other buildings have been knocked down to make way for the Olympic infrastructure. He has collected the feet of Buddha statues, the only part of the statue left after destruction during the Cultural Revolution.
Are his actions right? Are his smaller desecrations acceptable if they show up the larger state-sponsored desecrations? I don’t know, but I do know that he has made me see that there is something beyond the vandalism.
Lots more interesting works, whimsical floating balloons, fine drawings, porcelain flowers and common household stools……
Oh, and Andy Warhol’s work was there too! I loved his drawing and use of colour.
It is an important exhibition, and I am grateful to have been able to understand a little more about these artists. Do go and see it if you get the chance.
(All these photos were taken by me. Please ask if you would like to use them.)