This weekend I headed down to the National Gallery of Victoria to see the Warhol / Wei Wei exhibition which is running until April 2016.
I would describe myself as ‘interested’ in modern art. I wouldn’t say I was a ‘fan’ just because it can be so different. Some of it I love and some I struggle to appreciate (blu-tac in a frame anyone?) Andy Warhol is an artist that I can appreciate to the level that I actually did a study of some of his works through a term of art at GCSE. There is something wonderfully glamorous about his life in New York – from a distanced observer’s point of view at least. He used to document his life obsessively through photographs and many of these black and white stills were on display, which is such a treat. It’s like getting a glimpse into a golden age of New York society with shots full of famous people at fabulous parties.
In contrast I knew nothing about Ai Wei Wei when I went in and left completely inspired by him, even more so as a person than as an artist. A lot of his work on display is immediately visually and aesthetically pleasing beyond knowing what it represents. A big favourite was his bicycle propped against a floral background, where there was a queue of people to have their photo taken with it. It would undoubtedly make a great Facebook profile photo and it’s nice to know that Ai Wei Wei would endorse the use of his work in that way due to his own active involvement with social media.
I walked through the whole exhibition with an immediate gravitation towards his art but it was only in the last section when I sat down to watch a very long (maybe an hour!) video about his career that I realised how important he is. See he is not just an artist but an activist and his activism through art is what is really inspiring. Wei Wei hails from China and has tried to get the Chinese government to accept responsibility for the deaths of many young people in the earthquake due to the collapse of poorly built schools and colleges. With a group of volunteers he collected as many names as he could of those who died in this way and published them on his blog. This was subsequently taken down by the government and yet he continues to post and use twitter and instagram to speak out despite social media being seriously restricted in China. His actions put him and his fellow volunteers in great danger and the documentary showed how he is often tailed by government officials in his daily activities and was even once detained and attacked in a hotel room to prevent him from giving evidence at a fellow activist’s trial (they later were imprisoned for 11 years).
I ended up enjoying the show even more than I thought I would and I was surprised that I went in for Warhol and came out thinking about Wei Wei. That’s a great thing about exhibiting two artists alongside each other. People are naturally drawn to the shows by artists they know but that way you never discover anybody new. I’m so glad I have.