Melburnians, and those visiting this hub of whirlwind culture and weather, have an incandescent kick up the pants in store if they visit the National Gallery of Victoria right now. Andy Warhol’s in da house with Chinese photographer Ai Weiwei and it’s something else.
Now, by ‘else’, I mean different things for different participants. To tell you the truth, I’ve never necessarily been a Warhol fan myself. Lots of garish Monroes, Elvises or Campbell’s soup cans have never truly floated my boat. I figured anyone, even the sketchingly sketchy moi, could pull off four quarters of garish colouring in a year 3 art lesson. But over the two hours plus I meandered through the hallowed pop art halls, a couple of realisations dawned.
- Warhol’s existence, philosophy of self and the universe, was channelled through art, though artistic reflection. Not so much did he seem, to my eyes, a conduit or shaman through which masterpieces evolved; rather, he could only be, or understand his being, as it was art. In this light, I was particularly taken with his massive self portrait head-shots. These were at once his “art” and his “self”. Moreso, Warhol wasn’t necessarily creating them to be artistic, but in order, in fact, simply “to be”. And in its most personal, intrinsic expression of being by a notoriously shy man, how ironic a two metre square selfie is, indeed!
- Irony itself seemed at the heart of much of Andy Warhol’s work. Crass, monotonous or lurid reflections of culture and society were ultimately reflections on its crass, monotonous or lurid reality. From the short film, “Blow Job”, to the eight hour footage of the Empire State Building, from a humdrum soup can to an artistic series of monstrous Chairman Maos, irony propelled his work into an unsuspecting culture. And we gobble it up.
I did love wafting about with the shiny, levitating birds and silver pillow clouds. I wasn’t the only adult in the hallways lightly tapping these strange helium creatures, commenting on how therapeutic it felt to move with the push and drift about us.
Ai Weiwei’s capturing of the human in communist China and New York is stunning. Like Warhol’s work, that which is ironic and testing cultural norms pervades Ai’s. Yet as the child of artists in the time of Mao’s cultural revolution, his art, as with his father’s, is the ultimate in political defiance. Video footage sharing Ai Weiwei’s fears for his safety as the government watches his every move is a brittle truth. And the photo of his wife flashing her knickers in front of Mao’s giant statue, crowds oblivious, is a gesture to the obscenity of self expression through art as criminality.
What else? Well, who else? I brought my kids along for the ride. Maybe I thought they’d dig the flashy colours or believe anything is possible if you can be world famous having painted soup cans. Alas, neither option convinced them. But they absolutely loved the children’s exhibition set up specifically to showcase Ai Weiwei and Andy Warhol at an interactive level. So we jostled, giggled and pulled ridiculous faces in the Warhol montage photo booth. We made pet cat videos to email out to random, unsuspecting friends (apparently Ai Weiwei has 20 in his studio. Cats, that is, not random friends). And, above all else, we immersed ourselves in the nature of art.
And that’s what it was about. And that’s what thrilled and challenged me: thinking about art.
That, and the fact that, having stared at Ai Weiwei’s metres high collage of flower arrangements in a bicycle basket, I still failed to see the actual bicycle sitting right in front of me the whole time until my sister pointed it out. Top marks, Elise.
See, always something to discover.