Senior La Trobe Media lecturer, Hugh Davies, writes on Warhol and Weiwei
One of the many powerful connections between Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei made explicit at the current National Gallery exhibition is their pop-media aesthetic. These artists don’t paint or sculpt in the 18th century tradition. They are the children of Marcel Duchamp: iconoclasts whose works hinge on popular culture, new technologies and contemporary theories of art.
Ai Weiwei and online activism
The key technology of today is the Internet, and its pop manifestation is social media. Warhol would have loved social media, Ai has remarked, and having admitted to spending up to 12 hours-a-day online, he would know. Ai has been a major contributor on Chinese social media and a key figure in its censorship too. Not only has he advocated democratic change within the highly authoritarian state, but he has authored a meme on the Chinese Internet telling the Communist Party precisely where to go. Consequently, his social media accounts have been disabled and his political word-play has seen the Chinese Government legislate to ban online puns altogether.
It’s unfortunate that Ai’s online practice doesn’t translate into the gallery context, as it’s central to his artistic and aesthetic activity. Indeed many have argued Ai’s social media presence is the real reason for his arrest in 2011, although the official explanation is tax fraud. Ai made a fortune working as an architect in China during an era of construction greater than any other in human history. But Ai is not alone in becoming recently wealthy in China. In a curious contradiction to its founding principles, the Chinese Communist Party has permitted the pursuit of staggering quantities of private equity by its citizens, so long as they don’t challenge its authority.
The arrest of Ai Weiwei
Perhaps Ai was singled out for arrest because he refuses to self-censor. The Chinese State is especially sensitive to criticism and fearful of revolution as its population is so diverse in race, dialect and culture – and its history so plentiful with rebellion. It makes Europe’s history of political unrest appear affably stable by comparison. More importantly, Ai has long been recognised as a creative troublemaker in China. It’s in his family’s blood. So why suddenly arrest him in 2011?
What is certain is that Ai’s arrest signalled a shift in his reputation as an artist in China, a place in which he was previously celebrated as he now is in the West – although a similar swing against him appears to be occurring outside China too. Once seen as a martyr tackling the hypocrisies of power, Ai is increasingly identified with that very power and hypocrisy. Praise for the artist has given way to derision as a pop-activist who pays others to fabricate an oeuvre that relies heavily on cheap gags, glib puns and the tragedy of others.
For me, this lightness and crassness is the conceptual centerpiece of Ai’s practice. Through low level puns and playful insults, he underscores the political shallowness and narcissistic folly of social media, while completely embracing it too. It’s a happy hypocrisy in which we all participate. Ai’s own Instagram account is a case in point. He posts pictures of refugees rescued in Lesbos alongside selfies with Paris Hilton. The tactless collapsing together of tragedy, activism and irreverence common to everyone’s Facebook feed is only exposed as tasteless once viewed as art. But of course, pointing out hypocrisy is a slippery game, one that can get you in trouble, as Ai well knows.
Social statement or crass hypocrisy?
Leaving aside his 2011 arrest, his recent troubles resulted from a photo that exploded across the social media-sphere, bringing a flurry of indignant criticism against the artist. Thousands of netizens rushed to condemn Ai for his tactless cash-in on tragedy while overlooking that the offending image was created by India Daily.
Attempting to stem the backlash, the news outlet apologised for the photo, clarifying the image was not made by Ai and was not intended as a work of art. But Ai was nonetheless complicit in the photo’s production and possibly its distribution, so in a similar spirit of activist irreverence, let’s discuss it as art.
The image is quite banal: a black and white photo of a Chinese man (Ai) lying on a beach. The work is carefully choreographed to evoke another image – that of a dead Syrian child washed ashore in Greece. This original image, also produced by a news media outlet, is burned into our collective consciousness.
The obscenity of Ai’s pose is that it evokes this horrific scene, whose repetition highlights the complete failure our elected governments to cope with a refugee crisis. Here, I argue, Ai becomes a helpful target of online outrage for problems that we all, as well-informed global actors, are complicit. Perhaps China, where government is not elected by the people, is the sole world economy immune to blame.
But to the canny viewer, the image holds a deeper implication. The body lying on the beach is not Syrian, but Chinese. Undercutting Ai’s own activism, the image hints that if a shift toward Chinese democracy were to occur, we may not just see hundreds of Syrians drowned on beaches and Twitter feeds, but millions of Chinese too. Here we glimpse the logic behind the 2011 arrest of Ai, at a time when the social media uprisings of the Arab Spring sparked the conflicts from which Syria is still reeling. In this way, the activist image contains its own critique.
Activism and subversion in Warhol vs Weiwei
Many have underscored activism as the defining difference between Warhol and Ai’s work, forgetting the subversive nature of Warhol’s activity. Not only did he elevate society outcasts to superstardom, Warhol was himself an openly gay man at a time when homosexuality was illegal. But while Warhol’s art reflected the excesses of celebrity, image and capitalist culture of the US dominated 20th Century, Ai’s online practice provides an important lens through which we might consider the present Chinese Century.
The deployment of social media as an artistic tool and activist space is not entirely new, the manner in which Ai uses it is revolutionary.
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Image: Human Faces by Geralt