Ai Weiwei: Pop Art to Protest Art

The National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, is currently showing an exhibition of two monumental artists, Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei, whose work and interests often intersected, even though they were working in different eras. As Weiwei was still studying in the 1970s and early 1980s, a time when Warhol’s star was meteoric. In this post, I only focus on Weiwei’s work.

Ai Weiwei shares Warhol’s scepticism for “high art” and authority, as evidenced in his 1995 classic artwork, “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn,” which he redid in 2015 with legos (featured in my photos below). Similarly his two installations, Chandelier with Restored Han Dynasty Lamps for the Emperor and Forever Bicycles (both 2015) make a comment on the cultural artefacts that are revered at a later point in time, even though they were once everyday household items with little value.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Flower Power

Weiwei uses a recurring motif of flowers. Their symbolism is particularly effective in his daily two-year protest that began after his Government in China confiscated his passport without legal recourse. He put out flowers on his bicycle outside his house every day, in full view of Government cameras that watched his every move.

Weiwei uses ceramic flowers and white sculptures of himself in various works to reflect on the 81 days he spent imprisoned by the Government; time he spent without any legal charges made. He was jailed very publicly after attempting to board a flight, to make a point about his passport status. Even upon his release, the Government had him under surveillance.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Gaol and Gender

The artist created a thought-proving video reflecting his time of incarceration, depicting the torture he endured, his anguish and boredom, and his humiliation. The short clip (below) ends with Weiwei shaving his overgrown beard and the hair on his head, with the help of a young boy, perhaps evoking his young son. Weiwei then dresses up in make-up, a lace dress and stockings. He parades in the room symbolising his jail cell with two male guards by his side, and he struts as if he is on a high fashion runway, rolling his eyes.

This is an interesting video through which to explore the sociology of gender and social protest. Is the artist equating his degradation in jail, where he had no control over his body and movement, to femininity? Is he making a feminist connection between the surveillance he endured to the state’s authority over women’s bodies? Is he linking his sexual frustration, also depicted in his film, to the sexualised, feminine subject he became to his captors, who mocked his body and undermined his creativity and autonomy?

Much of Weiwei’s previous and ongoing work has shown solidarity to women’s agency, including a famous photo of Lu Qing his now-wife “flashing” her underwear in defiance of the state, five years after the Tiananmen Square massacre (June 1994, below).

The Art of Protest

Why is this artist so dangerous to one of the world’s superpowers? Quite simply, due to his revolutionary ideas that creativity, social protest, free speech and critique of social issues should be the right of all people in China and elsewhere. The artist created interactive spaces for the public to consider these themes through play.

Social protest has been an ongoing theme in his work since the early 1980s, when he moved to New York City and chronicled his daily life through photographs and home movies. He continues these photographic and cinematic journaling to the present day, through his various social media accounts.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

“The harm of a censorship system is not just that it impoverishes intellectual life; it also fundamentally distorts the rational order in which the natural and spiritual worlds are understood. The censorship system relies on robbing a person of the self-perception that one needs in order to maintain an independent existence. It cuts off one’s access to independence and happiness.” – Ai Weiwei

Building Blocks of Human Rights

Weiwei dedicated a room made entirely of “legos” to human rights activists from Australia, made especially for this exhibition. The quotes and portraits were difficult to see clearly until viewed from a camera lens. He featured gay and lesbian academics, women campaigning against domestic violence, Indigenous leaders, and other human rights pioneers from various walks of life.

I used the term “legos” because the world-famous company would not give the artist permission to use their building blocks for this artwork. He substituted with a cheaper version made in China, which suits his ongoing comment on commercialisation and China’s economic position.

Pleasure in Play

The Studio Cats space is a free exhibition, boasting a wonderland for children to explore Weiwei’s love of cats (he has over 30 of them in his home) as well as Warhol’s adoration for felines. Adults, including me, also had a joyous time.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Weiwei was in Melbourne last weekend, at the launch, and he posted various photos of himself online interacting with fans as well as observing behaviour in the gallery space. This suggests the artist’s genuine interest in how his art connects with people.

Weiwei’s work is a must-see. Now showing at the NGV until 22 April 2016.

Ai Weiwei - I want people to see
I want people to see their own power. – Ai Weiwei

Art is not an end. Creativity is part of human nature. – Ai Weiwei

Learn more:

Visit the artist’s website. He’s prolific on Twitter and Instagram.

Read more about his art and politics.

Image credits:

Art: Ai Weiwei. Photographs: Zuleyka Zevallos.