‘Art is what you can get away with’, says contemporary Chinese born artist Ai Weiwei, who has been the subject of shows in Washington DC, described as an A list ‘power artist’.
He is active in the arenas of sculpture, installation, architecture, curating, photography, film, politics, society and culture.
Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei now showing the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), Melbourne, 11 December – 24 April, 2016 explores modern and contemporary art, life and cultural politics through the activities of two controversial artists of the ‘modern age’.
It offers an opportunity for Australians to encounter and engage with their contemporary works, including five new commissions by the NGV from Ai Weiwei,.
In 2011 editors of the ArtReview magazine in America named artist Ai Weiwei the most powerful dissident in the world, when communist authorities in China imprisoned him and stripped him of his passport.
Just one aspect of his life’s difficult journey, he has only recently had it returned.
This exhibition is a landmark occasion, the first time basically he has been able to not only be involved with the installation of his works first hand, but also be there to see them all arrayed alongside works by the man he credits with inspiring his own career.
The show examines ‘the shared motifs’ of Weiwei and Warhol’s work, their engagement with the readymade, their relationships between art, politics, economy and celebrity and the documentation of contemporary society and everyday life’.
It is a wonderful pairing.
Interestingly Warhol’s art so revolutionary in its time had such a feeling of familiarity for me as I gazed upon his works.
In many ways it felt as if it is now becoming part of a static tradition, while Weiwei’s works are still highly charged, full of movement and exceeding expectations.
He addresses many critical issues of the early twenty-first century in our world, including the value of freedom of expression, one that we all need to actively safeguard.
Capturing the artist standing within an area full of floating red and yellow balloons, one shaped to represent the Twitter bird icon in red with a gold image of the grass mud horse, an expression of discontent in China, graphically revealed Ai Weiwei’s condemnation of the Chinese authorities for limiting its people’s access to the Internet.
He likened his visit to the NGV International on St Kilda Road as a ‘miracle’, which seems fitting for a man who says ‘Liberty is all about our rights to question everything’.
Art challenges, informs and reflects the mores, concerns and values of our society at any time in its cultural development.
This show captures this dynamic duo’s spirit, courage and passion for that of making a better world.
Contemporary art commentators often claim the pop art prince American painter, printmaker, avant-garde filmmaker, record producer and author Andy Warhol was the most influential artist of the second half of the 20th century.
The show includes being playful, with the artists shared fascination with the world of cats.
A fabulous interactive installation NGV Kids: Studio Cats, engages children in the many activities available.
The highlight individual photo booths allowing each child the ability to make their own self styled Andy Warhol portrait.
In his day Warhol induced an epiphany of what art is or is not, executing well what he innovated with his extensive technical knowledge and skilful proficiency.
A true provocateur he fired up the feelings and emotions of others.
Ai Weiwei was one, plugging into the luminary artist’s gifts as a young man in the early 80’s struggling to live and learn English in a hard town New York, which he understood at that time as the centre of world contemporary issues.
Ai Weiwei came to Melbourne early to supervise the final preparations for this world premiere exhibition. It also meant he could be here for the lead up and opening day events. He finds it hard to believe his works from the 80’s are being displayed next to Warhol’s works, 90% not seen anywhere else before together and so many being shown for the first time.
Weiwei’s Forever Bicycles 2015 commission is composed of more than 1800 bicycles, marking our freedom to move. Filling the atrium space near the entrance of the exhibition, Weiwei has used a popular brand of mass-produced bicycles, manufactured in China since the 1940s, a type that he desired as a child and the bicycle that stood outside Ai’s Beijing studio for 600 days, signifying his inability to travel.
Prior to the preview the atmosphere was buzzy in the Great Hall of the NGV, with a heightened sense of expectation. 200 chairs were available (more than double most other previews) plus there was a standing room gallery three deep behind that and a large media platform to take images from
After a brief introduction and appropriate thanks from Director Tony Ellwood, who imagined this show in collaboration with a few of his colleagues, Ai Weiwei arrived on stage to great applause so Ellwood could interview him.
The media frenzy that followed was not for the feint hearted, as individual Online publishers and news media clamoured to take the best shots possible travelling along in their wake as Weiwei and Ellwood led a charge through the exhibition, which takes up the whole ground floor.
‘This is certainly different from our last media announcement’ commented NGV director Tony Ellwood as he was swept past on the rapidly moving wave of energy, excitement and enthusiasm.
They were on their way to the Letgo Room 2015, designed to make us confront the human rights issues happening in China right now.
It also showcases the enormous creativity of this man, who surmounted the numerous challenges he faced when the ‘Lego’ company refused to allow their building blocks to be used for a political statement. Since the opening he has announced he is gifting the room to the NGV.
Artists, who have chosen to work in a parallel mode to Warhol, have usually taken his original concepts and developed them in dynamic new directions as indeed Ai Weiwei has in our time.
His journey into the political arena was a deliberate choice, which all started he said, when he became involved in the world of architecture, employed as an artist consultant to the firm of architects retained to build the stadium for the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
This means he has become a living symbol of the struggle for human rights, not just in China, but also now in the wider world. His statement ‘the world is a sphere and there is no east or west’ goes to his state of mind and that of his supporters.
He’s not about revolution but about ‘resisting’, and if his work has meaning, as well as any aesthetic value, then he believes it must be political.
Weiwei’s installation Restored Han Dynasty Lamps composed of thousands of interwoven crystal prisms representing eternal life and light, providing a stunning display in the entry hall reflecting off the NGV’s famed Water Wall.
This eternal light in his series of light installations and chandeliers Ai Weiwei has produced since 2002 is extravagant, inspired by an antique Han dynasty lamp discovered in the tomb of a Han Dynasty Emperor where, just like the pharaohs of Egypt, the Chinese Emperor’s worldly possessions were entombed with him to cater for his comfort in the after life.
He remembers how such an image of luxury impacted on his life as a child living in distress and deprivation.
On his turn around the gallery graciously Ai Weiwei paused and posed like a poster boy at carefully selected show off points, shared selfie’s with a few bright young hopefuls and smiling broadly, enjoyed more than 15 minutes of fame at Melbourne.
He stood gazing fondly at Andy Warhol’s Flowers 1970 and turned to gaze at his own work Blossom.
This is another spectacular new installation in the form of a bed consisting of thousands of delicate white porcelain flowers.
Here he is drawing on China’s long history in producing the finest porcelain in the world and representing the purity of the many lost souls who have fought for freedom.
However, after that brief moment he began recording those recording him.
Andy Warhol elevated the commonplace taking art out of lofty halls, palaces, pavilions, posh salons and galleries where it had been secure into the supermarkets, markets and malls so that the masses could admire not only his skill but his nerve at doing so.
Many art followers bound down in long-standing traditions at the time were scandalised by his behaviour and his art.
In our time however, we are more used to artists working beyond ‘boundaries’, and we can look at Weiwei’s work and but gasp at his creations while admiring his extraordinary creativity.
His S.A.C.R.E.D. Maquettes 2011, depicting scenes from the detention cell when being held without charge for 81 days in 2011, powerful beyond belief.
This is a contemporary art show that will be sure to captivate the public imagination.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2015
11 December – 24 April