Our all-too-brief visit to Melbourne coincided with a major exhibition of the work of Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei, both giants of the art world, brought together in one exhibition.
Warhol was obviously a highly influential and innovative artist in his time, but, for me, the various exhibits, and the life story, of Ai Weiwei stole the show.
Ai Weiwei is what my mother would have called “a bit of a bugger’. He is a cultural iconoclast who aims to question accepted doctrine at every turn, regardless of the danger that such outspokenness exposes him to.
A fervent believer in individual freedom of expression, he is not afraid to shock and to voice his criticisms of authority and to question cultural orthodoxy. This has, not surprisingly, brought him into conflict with the government of his native China, where criticism of the status quo and, particularly of the ruling Communist Party, is simply not tolerated.
One of his earliest pieces, which was recalled in the exhibition, was his famous, or infamous, deliberate smashing of a Han Dynasty vase. Many interpretations have been put forward for this eye-catching piece of ‘vandalism’, which, if nothing else, opens up a discussion on the subject of the value placed on cultural icons.
It has been suggested that the vase dropped in the photograph might not have been a genuine Han vase and that, therefore, the outrage that greeted the event was misplaced. It might, or might not be significant that the design and architecture company that Ai Wei Wei owns is called ‘Fake’.
In 2008, there was a huge earthquake in Sichuan Province. News of the scale of the disaster was suppressed by the Chinese authorities who refused to release proper casualty figures and sought to minimize the significance of the devastation. The media was muzzled and a veil of secrecy was draped over the whole event.
Ai Weiwei travelled to Sichuan, with a team of volunteers, who went house to house in the affected area, interviewing bereaved parents and recording the names of more than 5000 children who had been killed when their jerry-built, government schools collapsed on top of them.
Ai then listed the names of all of the children on various social media platforms and displayed them in pubic exhibitions. This did not win him any friends in the Communist Party. It also resulted in him being savagely beaten up by anonymous ‘thugs’, and left with serious head injuries.
On April 3rd 2011 Ai Weiwei was arrested at Beijing airport, by plain clothes men who refused to identify themselves. He was hooded and taken into custody. His studio in Beijing was raided by around 50 police offers who arrested his wife and eight of his co-workers and confiscated various papers, laptops and hard drives.
Three days later the China Daily was describing Ai Weiwei as “a deviant and a plagiarist.” He was kept in custody for 81 days, during which time he was watched by two uniformed prison officers 24 hours a day. One of the works in the Melbourne exhibition records this fact.
During his period of imprisonment, he was interrogated every day for between two and four hours.
One of his ‘artworks’ that had attracted the attention of the interrogators was a series of photographs that Ai had produced featuring a raised middle finger salute in front of various famous landmarks including the gate of the Forbidden City in Beijing.
He argued to his tormentors that Forbidden City represented China’s pre-Communist “feudal’ culture and that, therefore, the government should be not feel in any way upset by the picture. He pointed out that he had done a similar photo in front of the White House in Washington.
His interrogators said that that was a matter for the American police.
He was returned to his padded cell, where his was held incommunicado for the entire time. In order to go to the toilet, he was obliged to ask permission from his guards and salute them as a sign of respect.
Following his release, Ai Wei Wei’s passport was confiscated and he was forbidden to leave Beijing, on the basis that further charges of pornography, bigamy and money laundering might be brought against him. His reaction to this was typically provocative. Knowing that secret service agents were watching his studio around the clock, he announced on social media that he would display a bunch of flowers in the basket of a bicycle park outside his gate. So that the secret service men would not get bored, the flowers would be changed every day until his passport was returned to him. Every day, he posted pictures of the day’s flowers on the same social media for the world to see.
In a typical act of defiance, the surveillance and the whole period of being held as a stateless person, became part of the exhibition.
From wallpaper… to flowers.
600 bouquets of flowers later, his passport was returned. No further charges were brought.