Melbourne's NGV is gearing up for its next blockbuster exhibition. One which will see the pairing of current artistic cause celebre, Ai Weiwei with perennial art world favourite Andy Warhol.
You've already been given the heads up on this exhibit due to all the fuss that has been created in the last week or so. For those who have been hiding away from the web, let me help bring you up to speed.
Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei is being billed as a major show which will bring together over 300 works by Warhol and more than 120 by Ai Weiwei, with the aim of exploring their practices side by side. Weiwei, no longer passport less, but ever a parriah in the eyes of the Chinese government, had pitched the idea of creating an installation made of Lego at the space. He said the work would make reference to "Australian activists, advocates and champions of human rights, freedom of expression, freedom of information and the Internet." Presumably, by using a commercially produced object that we immediately associate with childhood and innocence, the symbolism wouldn't be lost on viewers.
Problem is that we don't live in a world where freedom of expression is as straightforward as it seems, especially in the commercial realms. There are always bigger factors at play when you're playing in the big leagues.
The story has it that Ai Weiwei put in an order to Lego headquarters for Lego pieces, with which he planned to create the installation. Lego, declined to fulfill the order, indicating that they were an organisation that steers clear of having their products used for political purposes. A few days later, the organisation announced that they would be opening one of their flagships in Shanghai. Coincidence? Anyone smell a rat?
It seems that Lego toys don't actually build anything despite the old copy lines. There are limits to expression, and not just in using squarish shapes that you have to batter into control with a mallet. Or in quashing expression in general.
But this is an age where people mobilize through social media, and picking up on the unpleasant whiffs that the story was offering, and capitalizing on the attention at the same time, Weiwei attracted a lot of support and sympathy. There were stories circulating of how people were sending him their own Lego pieces to use, and his studio in Beijing became an official collection point.
Well now the NGV, Melbourne's historic art gallery, has waded in. They've announced that as of today, visitors can pop by and donate lego pieces, by dropping them into the sunroof of a convertible which will be parked in their sculpture garden. Melbournians need to celebrate this. Why? Because it's a way of sidestepping the politics or counteracting them? No. Because it's Springtime in Melbourne, and being able to drop off your Lego pieces at the NGV is a fabbo way to get some more spring cleaning done - and to help a brother out. Just imagine it... you'll be able to go around saying that you have some artwork in the NGV!
In the end, Lego's refusal to fulfill the artist's order seems to be a win win. It will render whatever installation Ai Weiwei can fashion from the donated pieces more potent than the simple commercial exchange could ever have done.
And, NGV's support of the initiative will go someway in helping them in their quest to be seen as a contemporary venue, and not the stuffy, historical house that they were traditionally seen as.
I plan on popping by to inspect the end results when I pop over to Melbourne over the new year.
NGV press release here.
Dave Di Vito is a writer, teacher and former curator.He's also the author of the Vinyl Tiger series and Replace The Sky.
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