Chetna Prakash digs into the childhoods of Warhol and Weiwei to search for the genesis of their artistic genius.
Viewers and critics love going Freudian on artists, digging into their childhood and personal lives in search for clues that may reveal new meanings in their works of art. Sometimes, the connections between their life and experiences are strong and visceral. Other times they are not.
In this article, we will look at where and how the childhoods and personal lives of Ai Weiwei and Andy Warhol have influenced their art. (Their works are jointly on display at the National Gallery of Victoria until April 24).
Weiwei’s childhood can be described by one word – traumatic. His father Ai Qing was a celebrated Chinese poet. Though a fervent member of the Communist Party, he fell victim to Mao’s infamous purges of the intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution of the 1950s. His crime? He wrote a poem calling for greater tolerance for different voices.
In 1958, when Weiwei was barely a year old, his family was packed-off to a remote village in Manchuria, where Qing was banned from writing and assigned the task of cleaning 13 public toilets a day. Party members continued to publicly humiliate him, on one occasion pouring black ink on his face. Eventually, his family was sent to a village on the edge of the Gobi Desert. Humiliated, voiceless and isolated, Weiwei’s father attempted suicide several times during the 16 years of internment.
Weiwei was nearly finishing high school when his family was allowed to return to Beijing in 1976. In other words, his entire childhood had been defined by his family’s torturous internment at the hands of the Communist Party. It sow the seeds of his rage and rebellion, which have defined his life and art since. His 12 years in America, between 1981 and 1993, gave him the tools and language to express that rage and rebellion in the form of art, conceptual art to be precise.
In some works of art, his rage and rebellion is literal. Like in the case of Study of Perspective (1995-2011), a series of photographs in which he shows his middle finger to buildings representing power around the world, from Tiananmen Square in Beijing, to Eiffel Tower in Paris and the White House in the US.
The rage is more subtle but equally potent when he smashes antique vases for his art, as he does in Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995). Yes, it makes a statement about China’s cavalier destruction of its historic architecture and legacy (as we discussed in a previous article), but only a man who saw his father burn each and every of his published works in the family courtyard as a boy can casually pick a beautiful and valuable piece of art and coldly smash it to pieces to make a point.
It is blogging and social media that gave Weiwei a channel to turn his personal rage into something larger, something that embraced other victims of state’s oppression and whimsies. He insisted on finding out and memorialising the names of over 5,000 school children in Citizen’s Investigation (2009) that the Chinese government was trying to hide. In a later installation, Remembering (2009), he covered an entire exterior wall of one of Munich’s museums with colourful children’s backpacks, which spelt “She lived happily on this earth for seven years.” It was a statement made by the mother of a child killed in the earthquake. The Chinese government wanted to bury the victims, literally and metaphorically. In response, Weiwei emblazoned their memory on a public wall for the world to see.
If there are clues to his Warhol’s eventual genius in his childhood, they are hard to spot. His childhood, described in a word, was conventional. He was born Andrew Warhola in 1928 to Polish immigrant parents. His father was a builder and his mother a cleaner, and though they were working class, they gave Andy a comfortable childhood. His mother encouraged his interest in the arts through colouring books, paper cutouts, comics, glossy magazines and Hollywood movies. His father died when he was 14, but not before he had saved enough money to pay for his college. At college, he studied commercial arts and eventually became a successful commercial illustrator in New York in the 1950s.
Weiwei’s works are all rage and emotion and we see how his life experiences shape that, but what inspired Warhol’s incredible ironic distance – a quality that defines his entire body of work? Warhol shunned emotions. In fact, one of his most famous statements is: “I want to be a machine.” He strove to put distance between himself and his subject, often using pre-existing media images of people and events, or asking people to stare into the camera expressionlessly, or by allowing technology to become an equal partner in his art. He used endless repetition to drive meaning out of images, which he once explained as, “If you looked at something long enough, I’ve discovered, the meaning goes away.”
It is hard to fathom what emotion was Warhol trying so hard to run away from. One might wonder if being gay, and an outsider by virtue, lay behind this decided reluctance to feel, but the 1960s and 70s was also the peak of sexual revolution and certainly Andy did not suppress his sexuality in any way. If anything, he celebrated it, and his studio The Factory was the hotbed for all kinds of sexual experimentation.
Andy was not a man without empathy. If anything, his unfiltered acceptance of people from all backgrounds, races, sexes and sexual orientations into his intimate circle displays an incredible ability to see the humanity in all. Could it be that felt too much, and in response, strove to escape emotions?
If there is any event of which Andy Warhol writes with unadulterated emotion, it is the death of his beloved cat Hester, who died while being neutered by a vet. In his book Diaries, he wrote “My darling Hester. She went to pussy heaven. And I’ve felt guilty ever since. That’s how we should have started POPism. That’s when I gave up caring.”
Could the death of his cat lay behind his relentless drive to push emotions and meaning out of his life and art? It is tempting, and art theorists (who are otherwise clutching at straws), have seriously considered it a possibility.
I prefer to think that it was just a singularly Andy trait. As his classmates noted of him in high school yearbook in 1945, he was “as genuine as a fingerprint,” and, perhaps, as unique as one as well.
Over 300 works of art by Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei are currently on display at the National Gallery of Victoria for an exhibition entitled Andy Warhol – Ai Weiwei. The gallery is open for extended hours all through January.