Ai Wei Wei // Andy Warhol

Poignant anti-government photograph at Tiananmen Square by Ai Wei Wei

One, a Chinese dissident artist, the other, a pop print icon with an enviable squad. So what brought them together in one exhibition? The jury is still out…

I have always considered myself a philistine when it comes to the arts. Quite simply, I just don’t get it.

Almost 15 years ago I stood in front of the painting masterpiece ‘The Birth of Venus’ by Botticelli, at the Uffizi gallery in Florence, and yes, of course, I marvelled at the artist’s skill. I could clearly understand the subject, how much work had gone into it etc. But the rest of the gallery was mind boggling. How did all those elementary school paintings of Jesus get chosen to display here?

I’ve never understood how art measured and selected, or why a ripped canvas is exhibited at the Tate in London and yet my stick trees wouldn’t qualify, I mean, they’re really bloody good!

Despite this, I’ve never turned down an invitation to visit a gallery in the hope that one day it will click. Photographs are certainly more appealing and for me, this is the exception.

Bicycle Sculpture by Ai Wei Wei on display at the NGV Melbourne
Bicycle Sculpture by Ai Wei Wei on display at the NGV Melbourne

I visited the Wei Wei/Warhol exhibition in Melbourne, Australia, in January this year as a birthday gift to a dear friend. I knew little about both artists and decided to go in with an open mind and without having done any research.

Sophisticated Lego Art

I entered only knowing a few things about the artists, the venue and the exhibition:

  1. Wei Wei is a pain in China’s communist backside as he is an advocate for freedom of speech and has risked his life speaking out against the government, notably being detained in 2011 for 81 days without charge.
  2. Warhol was a party animal with a clique of celebrities and he is well known for colourful pop art pictures such as the iconic Marilyn Monroe print.
  3. Wei Wei asked the Lego company for bulk Lego bricks to use in his exhibition and they rather stupidly said no. Wei Wei publicised their response and in poured donations of Lego bricks from around the world. Lego has since admitted its regret at this ‘low-authority’ decision.

I really knew very little.

The exhibition was a maze of rooms, each dedicated to an artist, or separated clearly, with a loose flowing theme running through each.

Han Dynasty Pottery used in Ai Wei Wei Exhibition

From the outset, Wei Wei’s use of Chinese pottery, old communist photos and anti-government messages, shows a man that is passionate about his people and country but is sad at the way globalisation has affected it.

Controversial photography by Chinese dissident, Ai Wei Wei

His humorous photos of his middle finger placed in the foreground of well-known Chinese landscapes was in protest of the deaths and injuries caused by poor workmanship of buildings that collapsed during a devastating earthquake in the Sichuan Province.

There is no denying his courage at speaking out.

I have a fondness for China, having lived there a few years ago, so I enjoyed this part of the exhibition. However, I couldn’t help but wonder at the hypocrisy of his destruction of Han dynasty vases, in the name of ‘nuanced cultural comment’ as the label declared.

Lego Art - A Self Portrait by Wei Wei

There were some great photos of Wei Wei in America, a little insight into his artistic and social nature, with some surprising nude photos that were baffling to me but seemed to be accepted as a typical eccentricity of an artist.

Iconic pop art by Andy Warhol

Warhol’s work, on the other hand, was just too random for me. I appreciate that his pop prints are iconic for a reason, yet I can’t help think that he certainly benefited from such a famous circle of friends. On the whole, it was too ‘arty’ for me.

That’s a terrible word, ‘arty’, but if you’re like me you’ll know exactly what I mean. I felt that the description on the museum plaques were totally made up to try and justify why a dodgy pen sketch was included in the collection.

'United Staes of America' - Miss-spelled Warhol sketch

I couldn’t help but notice one of Warhol’s sketches had a spelling mistake – it was at that point I realised I just wasn’t appreciating his work. It felt like they had dragged out any form of artwork he had put his name to, in order to fill out the rooms.

What really confuses me, though, was what brought these two artists together.

Warhol’s world seemed fickle and egotistical, he displayed erratic tendencies that are somewhat stereotypical of a troubled artist. He had been to China also, some of his work was featured and I wondered whether it was this crossover of America and China that brought the two together?

Wei Wei used Lego, Pottery and photographs to make bold, controversial statements about the consumerist society ruining Chinese culture and history, but using his dissidence as a catalyst for popularity.

I mused at the possibility that neither could fill a whole space so the logical thing was to stick them in it together and join the dots.

Andy Warhol Sketch

My friend had a point that the museum labels for kids were far easier to understand than the adult’s labels – something I find congruent in the world of art galleries. If only they realised it really marginalises visitors and limits community outreach.

Our favourite bit was the bizarre cat area for kids, as both artists shared a fondness for felines. They have a photo booth (supposed to be for the kids!) which turns your pictures into Warhol pop images, providing us with 5 minutes of silly fun.

Pop Art Photobooth Warhol x Wei Wei Exhibition

Despite its peculiarity, I really enjoyed Wei Wei’s photos and could certainly relate more to his messages. I also learned I am not a Warhol fan at all!

I think these things are always worth a look, so try something new and go in with an open mind – you never know what you might discover.

The Ai Wei Wei x Andy Warhol exhibition is now finished at the NGV in Melbourne and is currently on display at The Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, PA, USA until August 28th, 2016.

What are your thoughts on the Art world or, if you have seen it, what did you think of this exhibition?

Ferg

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