You could hardly call yourself a Melbournite if you haven’t caught drift of the current exhibition at NGV. Lines of people drawled out onto the footpaths of Swanston Street for months after the exhibition opened last December, tickets in hand, swarms buzzing as though waiting to be let into the city’s hottest club. Such is the draw of the iconic and celebrity-like personae that are Andy Warhol and Ai Wei Wei.
When I first heard about the exhibition last year, it seemed to me an odd pairing. Warhol, creator of the famous hypercolour Campbell’s soup can, and Wei Wei, the acclaimed Chinese dissident artist currently idolized in the West, largely for his methods of digital rebellion. Where is the link? It was with this curiosity in mind that I entered the NGV, lining up with my golden ticket and being ushered in by the haughty art ‘bouncers’ of the gallery.
Enter the vast striking structure of metallic geometric perfection that is Wei Wei’s Forever Bicycles, curated by the NGV for this debut exhibition, immaculately presented beneath the central skylights of the stone-walled gallery foyer. The glistening lines and curves of over 1500 bicycles welded together in meticulous sequencing to create a feast of seemingly moving optics is quite simple, f*cking cool. The sheer magnitude that so saturates the eyes also seems a simple yet apt testament to so much of day-to-day living in many Asian countries, a subconscious ode to the ever-working human wonder that is typified by dense overpopulation and clock-work mechanization.
The exhibition itself takes us through the stories of these two individuals, Wei Wei and Warhol, whose works are juxtaposed to highlight two very peculiar and socially significant cultural zeitgeists. Separated in age by approximately 30 years, the link between their subject matter is tenuous, though some connection exists in the method and paradigm of thought that is employed in the process of creation.
Wei Wei’s rise to international notoriety is hallmarked by his most public boycotting of the 2008 Beijing Olympics after designing its main stadium, known as the Bird’s Nest, once it was revealed that the games’ organisers and government officials were moving local residents out of proximity of the games village in measures to improve the ‘look and feel’ of the games to foreign visitors. Wei Wei’s public criticism of these measures and of the autocratic Chinese Government was flagrantly displayed in a picture of the artist giving the Bird’s Nest a one-finger salute, initiating an international following of millions via social media. From there developed the specific quality that much of Wei Wei’s work has there-on carried; a quality seeded in civilian disobedience, unapologetic commentary on authority and most importantly, prolific digital dissemination.
Across the other side of the gallery walls we see the trademark gaunt features, feathery white hair and dark circular frames of Warhol, a 20th Century demigod who ironically rose to fame by coining the ‘pop-art’ aesthetic and highlighting the way in which celebrity-dom and idol worship spread into consumerism after the industrial age. Most famously presenting the otherwise banal Campbell’s soup can in hyper-colour fluoro, much of Warhol’s work sought to demonstrate the elevation of everyday objects to the status of idols in the modern day psyche. It also re-examined the consumer goods of the post-industrial age as a proxy for humanity’s highest potential; as possible symbols of a well-functioning affluent democratic and harmonious society.
While their work itself differs greatly in style and aesthetic, this exhibition shows certain parallels between the two artists in their desire to explore and document cultural change, socio-political movement and human perception, during very closely associated time periods and from very different social environments. Both Wei Wei and Warhol visited each others’ home cities, Beijing and New York respectively, whilst in their twenties, documenting their journeys and broadening their perspectives on social conditioning, individual sovereignty and ultimately their own practice as artists.
And while Warhol documented the social capacity for ‘celebritization’ of the ordinary, controversially credited for the phrase ’15 minutes of fame’, Wei Wei has capitalized on this idea as a central tenet of his artistic practice. Much of Wei Wei’s work uses the recording or imagery of ordinary objects as a token of greater comment, with the objects in the work becoming representative of a broader ‘in’ joke that is shared to millions via social media channels. His portfolio also includes simple yet detailed large-scale sculptural and photographic installations which have caught the attention of the international art world for their refined and poignant aesthetic.
On the digital front however, through his persistent publishing and documenting of his life, including his frequent clashes with Chinese authorities, Wei Wei has seized the celebrity power of social networks as a weapon against oppression and a tool to publicise failures of Government and hold it to account. It is possibly for this reason that he is perceived as such a remarkable threat to authoritarian powers, for his practices chart a new method in civil disobedience that suddenly turns the spotlight onto those in power that makes them answerable to a world-wide audience. Tellingly, in 2011 the artist was detained by Chinese officials for over 80 days under claims of subverting the State, during which time much of his work was destroyed or confiscated. You can read more about this here.
As a Gen Yer, I must disclose the inherent biases I carry in my perspectives on both Wei Wei and Warhol. Much of Warhol’s comments about the precepts of a consumerized society were commonplace, if not blatantly accepted, in the highly commoditized world in which I, and many other Gen Yers, grew up in. From this viewpoint, it is natural that the politically significant and digitally inventive portfolio offered by Wei Wei resonates with me on a personal and aesthetic level more so than Warhol’s work. However this is not to say that this exhibition has not widened my understanding of why Warhol’s work was considered radical, and more importantly, I now have a deeper respect for the notion that much of Warhol’s ideas influenced the dialogues around consumer society that have been formative to my development. One image in particular stands out: a brightly painted dollar sign framed on a 2 x 2 canvas. These days it seems artists and art-lovers naturally bemoan the moral bankruptcy of a culture that worships money as God, though it may be the case that Warhol paved the way for us by being the first to put that point in a frame.
In short, there is much too much to be contemplated about each of these intriguing artists than can be managed by this article. But it does occur to me that the strength of this exhibition, perhaps more so than the bountiful and thought-provoking aesthetic pleasures it offers, are the minds that it is depicting, and our responses to the perspectives being offered by these unique individuals and the societies they are critiquing.
Wei Wei and Warhol will be showing at the NGV until the 24th of April this year and is an exploration that is well worth it. There is no doubt that these two artists are asking questions of the society we live in that perhaps we should be asking too.
Further details of the exhibition are available at the NGV website.