We're living in desperate times.
These are desperate times my dear.
There's no way out of here.
There's no way out my dear.
- Back to the Wall, Divinyls.
WHEN it comes to contemporary artists and their heavily oiled machines, very few currently have the kind of press pull that China's Ai Weiwei does.
I have watched him with some fascination over recent years. His studio has produced some thought provoking work, and the current exhibition at Melbourne's NGV which pairs him with Andy Warhol certainly offers some food for thought.
Anyone that knows of Ai Weiwei will know that he is a dissident extraordinaire. Often, this has worked in his favour. The relentless hounding he received from Chinese authorities earned him all kinds of empathy from across the world, art lovers and beyond.
Earlier this week, the new hardline Danish government's announced that it would seize the assets of asylum seekers in order to cover the housing and food costs. This against a backdrop of violence directed at immigrants in Scandinavia. Ai Weiwei's respponse? A quick, swift decision of his own to close his current exhibition at Copenhagen's Faurschou Foundation.
In this case, the gallery publicly backed the artist's decision. And let's face it: such a powerful, symbolic gesture on the artist's behalf could only curry more favour with the public, leaving the gallery with no choice to support such a move. (Not suggesting that the Faurschou Foundation don't support Ai Weiwei's move, but as a former gallerist I also know that there are times when it is churlish to go against an artist's decisions - regardless of what agreement or contract might be in place).
It was a great, symbolic move on Weiwei's part.
Subsequent to this, Ai Weiwei has announced that he has opened a new studio - in Lesbos, one of the Greek islands located in one of the preferred migratory route into Europe. But the existence of the studio in Lesbos, staffed by volunteers, students and artists has been marked by Ai Weiwei's presence in the area. And in addition to other advocacy, Weiwei has tried to pull of a photographic stunt which hasn't exactly gone down as well as his Danish actions.
You see, Weiwei has chosen to re-enact one of last year's most polarising photographs: that of the drowned Syrian toddler who washed up on Turkish shores. In case you can't work it out from seeing the picture, he has decided to reenact the role himself.
Now, you can admire such a call to arms and celebrate the artist for bringing light to the issue. But the thing is, we are well and truly aware of the human crisis that is taking place in and around the Mediterranean. Ai Weiwei, in re-enacting this photo, in my mind, is rather cynically trying to ingratiate himself into the wider argument and has done so in a completely insensitive, sensationalist way.
In a lot of cases I would probably applaud someone in his position for being brave enough to use sensationalism under the circumstances where we need to be shocked into action.
But last year's image, for good and bad reasons, became one of the most powerful images in the recent history of photography and journalism. It is so well recognised and well known, that a reenactment is completely unnecessary, and dare I say, a poor move on the artist's part, despite those who took to twitter to laud it as being powerful.
If anything, the end result of the reenactment is the cheapening of the tragic events that took place last year (and that continue to take place). That photo European polarised governments into action but not until there was intense debate about how appropriate it was to publish the image in the media, and what that ultimately meant for the grieving family and families like it.
If you are one of the world's most recogniseable artists with a pool of talent at your disposal, and this is the most creative and engaging way you think you can bring attention to the plight of Syria and beyond, then I think you need someone by your side to tell you to stop, take a step back and rethink things.
Far better in my mind were the series of Instagram pictures that Ai Weiwei shared which were very much human and not at all a mistaken form of self aggrandizement. They are just as powerful and allow people to draw their own conclusions about the plight of people who are escaping the war torn parts of the Middle East.
So, in the space of about a week, and against two very different European backgrounds, Ai Wei Wei has quickly gone from the sublime to the ridiculous. And other than promote the fact that he has a new southern European studio in operation, he's achieved little more than a dent to the goodwill he has earned when he himself has been the target of injustice, rather than of pantomine drama.
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
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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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