THE AI WEIWEI WAY21 March 2016
Anyone who has visited Melbourne in the past three months will be familiar with the visage of Ai Weiwei. In an unprecedented advertising campaign for The National Gallery of Victoria’s (NGV) blockbuster summer exhibition, Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei, the Chinese contemporary artist’s wide-eyed gaze has been plastered across trams, billboards, shop fronts and print media. Moreover, a swarm of Weiweis have been staring back at us from seemingly every iPhone, Macbook and cinema screen available.
Government expenditure on art has always held a controversial position in the Australian debate (see the $1.3 million acquisition of Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles under Gough Whitlam). But no matter how you feel about the NGV’s use of taxpayer funds to finance the immense exhibition, just go and see it. Even if contemporary art’s focus on the conceptual over the aesthetic turns you off, as famously epitomised by Marcel Duchamp’s urinal, Fountain, the overarching theme of Weiwei’s practice is something that can be appreciated by all: freedom.
Upon entering the NGV’s Federation Court, it is impossible not to be overwhelmed by Forever Bicycles. 1,500 tessellating two-wheelers are suspended in the form of a sort of ultra-modern paifang (a Chinese gateway, à la the more traditional example at the intersection of Little Bourke and Swanston Street). Owning a model of the mass-produced Forever brand of bicycle has given many Chinese a sense of freedom and autonomy. Thus, Weiwei’s work acts symbolically as a kind of gateway to freedom.
But freedom, which we presume as our birthright in Australia, has never come easily to Weiwei. As a one year old infant, his father Ai Qing was denounced for being a poet and the family was sent to a labour camp. It was not until Weiwei was nineteen that he was able to return to Beijing. Ever since, his practice has been a struggle for liberty of expression in the face of the mammoth suppressive power of the Chinese government. But Weiwei is fearless and, given the myriad works produced for the NGV exhibition, seemingly inexhaustible. A triptych assembled in Lego depicts Weiwei smashing a Neolithic vase to pieces, serving as a critique of modern China’s disassociation since the 20th Century revolution from its ancient culture.
Elsewhere, Weiwei’s controversial 2011 detention by the Chinese government is recreated in the sculpture S.A.C.R.E.D, albeit with Weiwei himself assuming the role of oppressor and a uniformed official becoming the oppressed. One series, Study of Perspective, presents a collage of photos of Weiwei giving the finger to various symbols of national power, namely the Forbidden City, White House and Reichstag; further conveying the artist’s disdain for the Establishment and its suppression of individuals.
However, perhaps his most poignant piece is the inscription of the names of the more than 5,000 schoolchildren victims of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. In the aftermath, Weiwei collected the names in a ‘Citizen’s Investigation’, despite a violent crackdown from the government attempting to conceal the shoddy construction of the school as the reason for approximately 4,700 of the deaths.
More recently, Weiwei has been assisting refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos, physically supporting the aid efforts of UNHCR volunteers whilst constantly documenting the process on his Instagram account (@aiww). Moreover, by draping the pillars of the Konzerthaus concert hall in Berlin with 14,000 abandoned life-vests used by refugees in the crossing of the Mediterranean, Weiwei has sent a striking reminder to Europe and the world of the refugees’ plight.
It should be mentioned that Weiwei’s pieces in the NGV exhibition sit particularly well alongside Warhol’s more political silkscreen works. Tunafish Disaster highlights the unforeseeable dangers of consumerism; Gun critiques American gun violence and culture, of which Warhol was a first-hand victim, being shot and critically injured in 1968; whilst Electric Chair is a solemn indictment of corporal punishment. Moreover, Warhol’s incessant self-documentation processes, carrying a Polaroid daily from the 1950s until his death in 1987, has undoubtedly influenced Weiwei. The Chinese artist’s famously relentless use of social media can be seen as an artwork in itself, with his myriad posts ranging from ‘food porn’ and selfies at exhibitions to refugee crossings and support for convicted freedom activists. This is because for Weiwei, using social media is not a means to procrastinate or live vicariously through the ‘Instragramable’ lives of others. Rather, it is a defiant celebration of freedom of expression in the face of a totalitarian state. As Weiwei himself has expressed: “Never retreat, re-tweet!”
The majority of us will not be boarding the next flight to Greece to assist refugees, nor fighting against the repression of an authoritarian government. But perhaps in attending Weiwei’s exhibition at the NGV, we can be inspired to act for the freedom of others within reach, namely the nearly 4,000 refugees our own government continues to cruelly detain.
The Andy Warhol | Ai Wei Wei Exhibition at the NGV is open daily from 10am-5pm until April 24 2016. Student Price: $22.50