The character of cities, the experience of living in an exciting place and time, the meaning of ‘home’, displacement, exile, protest – these concepts are threaded throughout the work of Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei.
In order to gain a clearer understanding of how place and protest might impact art, and how artists might approach such concepts, we spoke to Dr Kristian Häggblom, a practicing photographer and lecturer in photography at La Trobe University.
Tell us about the workshop you ran at the NGV.
I presented with fellow lecturer and friend Elliot Howard, and we talked about the city and relationships to the city, concentrating on work that’s really confrontational and that has a protest angle to it.
Ai had just closed down one of his exhibits in Copenhagen, protesting against Danish migrant rules, so we also talked about how protest continues to be important to his work.
You have written about tourists and place. Can you explain that?
Well, for the Viewing Platforms project, which is a photographic project about relationships between tourists and remote destinations in the Australian landscape, I was focusing on the idea that in some sense there’s no need to photograph landscapes anymore, and that tourism, especially when looking at remote Australian tourist landscapes like Uluru, is about experiences: getting there, meeting other tourists and locals, buying a souvenir and so on.
There’s this old school idea that tourism is about vision; I argue that it’s not about vision entirely, but that it’s more about experiences like meeting locals, that it’s more experiential in general.
Tourism for me is about what I also experience and the people I meet. It’s about Japanese tourists eating kangaroo hamburgers as a form of revenge because they hit a roo on their long drive and it badly damaged their car, or European tourists meeting a ‘character’ from country Australia and trying to figure out the lingo.
Tourism is about Japanese tourists eating kangaroo hamburgers as revenge because they hit a kangaroo on their long drive and damaged their car; it’s about European tourists meeting a ‘character’ from country Australia and figuring out the lingo.
And that’s what Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei are also about. Warhol’s Factory was an experiential place. You had to be there; you had to experience it. Ai plays with so many things, especially media, in his work so that it’s not just about image, it’s about the things that rotate around the image.
You’ve been working from our Bendigo campus for a while, and you’ve also worked in Mildura. How does place impact your art?
Today, we all move around so much. We don’t have one job, in one company, in one place. I’ve actually been in Bendigo for a year and I was in Mildura for six years. Prior to that, I was in Tokyo for seven years. I’ve also travelled in America and Scandinavia and Asia for work, so I don’t really feel like I have a home, and I don’t feel a real sense of loyalty to one place.
Are our lives more transient?
Yeah, we’re connected to a lot of places, connected to what I call nodal points: places that are central to our experience. It’s interesting, because when I take photos, I wander and often end up unconsciously returning to the same places, usually rivers, forests or abandoned buildings, etc.I walk around and I often find myself returning to the same places via different routes. So, I think there are central points that are important but now these places are multiple.
Are these nodal points smaller than a city? Are they places within a city?
Yeah. I often get off a train in Japan and just walk and photograph, and somehow I take different paths and end up going to places I’ve taken photos before. So it’s like we’re drawn to these particular places and we don’t exactly know why. I think it’s subconscious.
Regarding Warhol’s connection to New York and Ai’s use of place in his photographs, how do you think ideas of home and place impact the way they see things?
Well, there’s a disconnect there, because Ai can’t go back to China and he couldn’t leave until recently, so his sense of place has to have changed. The place he is connected to, and the way he is connected to it, isn’t about fond nostalgia or childhood memories, it’s about … well … almost something evil. I think if he goes back he won’t be able to leave again.
Feature image: Broken Hill Circle (2010). Photo by Kristian Häggblom from the Viewing Platforms project.