Warhol and Ai made art that made waves. Here are three artworks that disrupted the status quo.
One of the most innovative aspects of Ai Weiwei’s art is his use of social media channels like blogs, Flickr and Instagram.
As Julie Ewington observed in The Monthly: ‘The internet has made Ai an international phenomenon, but he uses it as an artist.’
One of the clearest demonstrations of this phenomenon is Ai’s With Flowers, an ongoing exhibition lasting 600 days that was as much protest and performance as it was art. Protesting the confiscation of his passport by Chinese authorities, every Wednesday for more than eighteen months Ai filled the basket of a bicycle parked in front of his Beijing studio with a bouquet of flowers. He then shared photos of the flowers on his Flickr account.
Ai also uses his Instagram feed to document the lives of refugees, and has instigated many Instagram memes, including his viral ‘leg gun’ series, in which he simply posted a photo of himself holding his leg like a rifle, inspiring thousands of his followers to post photos of themselves in similar poses.
Ai was also a prolific blogger; between 2006 and 2009, he kept a blog on topics to do with art, architecture and cultural activism. By the time the Chinese authorities shut it down, it contained almost 3000 posts and scores of photographs. In 2011, he published a book of his posts called Ai Weiwei’s Blog: Writings, Interviews and Digital Rants 2006-2009.
Between 1963 and 1964, Warhol produced Pink Race Riot, Mustard Race Riot and Race Riot, a series of prints inspired by the civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama. Organised by Martin Luther King, the demonstration descended into brutality when the Alabama police attacked the protesters and arrested King.
Warhol wasn’t necessarily taking part in political activism. As curator and writer Francesco Bonami argued, Warhol genuinely sought to avoid direct engagement with political commentary around his work. All the same, he liked what that commentary revealed.
According to Bonami: ‘Images of death, disaster, and violence make news and mesmerize people, and that is what Warhol was interested in. Average people like fame and fame by default, that is, death. Andy Warhol was an average person and was proud of it.’
For many art critics, like John Ashbery, Warhol’s Race Riots prints signified a change in the Pop Art movement. ‘It is one thing to poke fun at supermarkets and TV commercials,’ Ashbery said, referring to typical Pop Art subjects, ‘and another to use art as a means of confronting us with the raw terror of so much that happens today.’ With the Race Riots series, Warhol certainly achieved the latter.
Ai often includes Lego portraits in his exhibitions. For 2014’s @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz, he used Lego blocks to create colourful portraits of exiles and political prisoners. For the Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei exhibition at the NGV, he sought a bulk order from Lego to make mosaic images of human rights advocates, including domestic violence campaigner Rosie Batty and Indigenous rights activist Gary Foley.
However, Lego denied the order because they did not want the bricks to be used for artworks that made a political statement. Ai took to social media, where he publicly declaimed the Danish company. On Twitter, he had a dig at the tagline for The Lego Movie (‘Everything is awesome’), tweeting: ‘Lego will tell us what to do, or not to do. That is awesome!’
Another tweet used the same tactics, again pulling no punches: ‘Lego is giving us the definition of what is “political”, and all the big corporations are telling us what to love or hate. That is awesome.’
‘As a commercial entity, Lego produces and sells toys, movies and amusement parks attracting children across the globe.
As a powerful corporation, Lego is an influential cultural and political actor in the globalized economy with questionable values.
Lego’s refusal to sell its product to the artist is an act of censorship and discrimination.’
After the subsequent public backlash, inspired by Ai’s incendiary statements, Lego changed their policy; now, they will no longer ask for details of the ‘thematic purpose’ of a project when processing bulk orders.
Ai’s response? He posted a selfie on Instagram with Lego strewn throughout his beard and hair.
Images: La Trobe Bike + Flowers and La Trobe Bike + Flowers (detail). Photos by Olivia Blackburn from ‘Study of La Trobe’s Perspective’ (2016), part of our forthcoming print publication promoting the Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei exhibition in collaboration with the NGV.