My Pursuit of Van Gogh: The True Story

Life is remarkably circular. Sometimes life works in ways you can’t even predict. Fifteen years ago, I encountered a story that little did I know will touch my heart in the most unexpected way.

In the early 00’s, encyclopaedias were still our default search engine as the ultimate source of information. Thick, hard-bound books shelved in glass cabinets, catalogued alphabetically according to the sets where it belongs. One day, it was one of those times I was hanging out with a life-long buddy at the library during lunch break when this person handed me an infamous story about a famed artist of the nineteenth century who cut off his ear and shot himself. My 12-year old naive, innocent and Catholic-oriented self was undeniably shocked. Back then, I looked up at these magnificent people from the past as glorious beings who ever walked on earth; Faultless, infallible and immaculate. A quintessence of an ideal human being.

“How could one of the most famous and influential post-impressionist painter lived such a life?”

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Image source: Holland.com

It was the time I was still obstinate and intolerant to the imperfections of life. The story was incomprehensible for me to accept and digest. From then on, I only focused on his works and refused to read about his life. It was simply unsuitable to take a young mind’s innocence and corrupt it with the dark intentions of human beings. So I thought.

Over the years, it has been my personal goal to expand my views and be more open-minded as possible. I allowed to put myself on someone’s shoes in every subject matter, remove all prejudice, breakdown every cultural norm and understand the root of such belief, behaviour and mindset. Since then, it has been my ultimate goal in life: To understand everyone and everything. Everything is a though word and impossible to achieve, but hey, we got to set the bar to the highest level.

One and a half decades later, I’ve pretty much achieved my goal in every subject that crosses my path. By removing personal preferences and inhibitions, I am able to dissect every detail of a fact, opinion or argument. It’s a very liberating thing to do. It’s the perfect time to go back to one story that I tried dancing around for quite a long time.

Life took its turn and presented me with the opportunity to revisit an old friend I’ve kept buried in my memory. The National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) in partnership with Art Exhibitions Australia and independent art historian Sjraar van Heugten curated Van Gogh and the Seasons as one of its international exhibitions for 2017.

“Hey! It’s Van Gogh. Not to be missed for sure!” I thought. It’s true. It was a wonderful once in a life time experience to see such an exhibit that focused on the four seasons of his works. The storytelling of the exhibit was impeccable. One, if only he will allow to immerse himself to the experience, will clearly feel the connection with Van Gogh’s personal life; How he came to be as one of the most renowned artists of all time.

 

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Van Gogh’s Ear: The True Story by Bernadette Murphy

After going through the exhibit, I exited into the souvenir shop without the intention of purchasing any merchandise. There was a large coffee table book, most likely 12″ x 12″ in size detailing the entire exhibit which I personally find above my budget to own. Everyone seems to have bought it. Besides, it was an exclusive publication for this particular exhibit. My best friend bought one, being a huge Van Gogh fan that she is. I personally wasn’t a huge fan of impressionist paintings so I gave it a pass. While browsing through the books section, I saw two copies of Van Gogh’s Ear: The True Story by Bernadette Murphy in paperback neatly placed on a table, seemed untouched. The title is very catchy, I scanned a bit, read a few pages and left.

Days later, the book seems to be calling out for me. NGV was conveniently located two blocks away from my workplace so I went back to the souvenir shop during my lunch break. I went back to the table where I last saw it but to my surprise, there’s none left. I saw an elderly man, around 70 years of age, intently reading the only copy of the book in sight. I wanted to wait for him so I can grab it for myself but he seemed so serious and wouldn’t put it down any time soon.

I asked the first staff I could find but I was told that it was completely sold out! I couldn’t accept it. “She seems like one of those staff who are lazy to get some stock.” The person I happen to asked must be a newbie. So I looked for the most easily swayed staff, younger than me, someone who looks like he doesn’t want to upset anyone, from the minority group, and asked again. I explained to him how badly I wanted the book. I know that I can purchase it online, but sometimes, you just want it right now.  I waited for some time and he came out with a bunch of new stocks. I was delighted and thanked him repeatedly. I got two copies and sent one to my best friend who lives in Sydney.

I started reading it as soon as I got the book. I couldn’t just put it down. The investigative, story-telling narration style was so captivating. The enigma of the book piqued my curiosity and I was completely sold. The story revolved around the pursuit to identify “Rachel”, the allegedly prostitute which Van Gogh offered his ear after cutting it off one night of December 1888. There were a lot of times while reading the book, my mind was impatient and furious, “Who the f*** is ‘Rachel’?!” But of course, I knew that her identity will only be revealed in the end. I didn’t want to skip anything! Every detail is vital to the story. I’m a lazy reader and I’ve got to say that not a part of this book bored me neither gave me a reason to give up.

Van Gogh’s mental breakdowns – why, when and where it happened – were all essential in understanding the ultimate act of insanity that went down to his story and eventually to history.

This book revealed so much from what I have expected. Bernadette Murphy took seven laborious years gathering information and ID-ing every single resident of Arles in every situation. She traveled in every place mentioned in the book to see first hand and imagine what it was like to live during Van Gogh’s time. Her effort in completing this book is truly amazing. This book explains the different medical diagnoses of the painter and uncovered the truths behind the sensationalised newspaper prints during his time. It also allowed us to see and feel the ultimate bond between two brothers despite the financial hardship they went through.

After all these years, I have finally able to embrace his story in perfect timing. It’s utterly overwhelming to have finished the book with a tragic end (as we all know) but it leaves a heartwarming experience that will forever linger in the soul.

 

 

Leuralla Toy and Railway Museum

Who would’ve thought that somewhere in the historic town of Leura, a suburb in Blue Mountains west of Sydney CBD, Australia’s largest toy collection can be found. A mixture of railways, cars, planes, action figures, Children’s books and vintage dolls, particularly, Alice in Wonderland, Barbie, Popeye, Noddy and Harry Potter.

The Federation Free Classical style of the two-storey house was built in 1910 for the wealthy yachtsman Harry Andreas and his family after the first house on the site, known as Leuralla, built in 1903, was burned down by a bushfire. The entire property including the garden is 12 acres in size. Harry’s daughter, Marjorie, married Clive Evatt, an Australian politician and barrister and took over the house. At present time, their son, Clive Evatt Jr and his family owns the property and are responsible for the current museum exhibiting their railway and toy collection including his uncle HV Evatt’s memorabillas.

Toy and Railway Museum-2The interior of the house is furnished with Queensland maple notable for its extensive paneling and carvings. As soon as you stepped inside, you’ll immediately be overwhelmed by the heritage and extensive history that will unfold before your eyes. The toy and railway collections dates back in the early 19th Century manufactured by different companies all over the world.

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It is noticeable how the owners have a special inclination towards Alice In Wonderland. You will be able to find it in every room and every corner of the house.

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The railway collection is indeed massive. I’ve never seen so many train sets in my life. It ranges from different types of locomotives, railways, trams and trains that dates back to the industrial revolution up until late 20th Century. My photos can not even justify the number of sets displayed in the museum. Here are a few of them:

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There are also a small collection of Children’s vintage hard-bound books. I was surprised to know that Noddy, a fictional character by English children’s author Enid Blyton, was created in 1949. I can still remember my little brother watching a new TV cartoon series of Noddy, back in early 2000s.

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A number of die-cast model cars can also be seen throughout the museum. Notably, the owners must have travelled to Germany to collect some of them. The presence of toys made in Germany and Nazi figures can easily be identified.

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If there are car model toys, there should also be planes and ships! Hanging in the ceiling of the staircase are two huge model biplanes.

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Another Alice In Wonderland collection from the latest franchise can be seen at the top and bottom of the glass cabinet.

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Lehmann Toys by Ernst Paul Lehmann Patenwerk, a famous German toy maker in 19th Century. Toy and Railway Museum-33Toy and Railway Museum-34Toy and Railway Museum-40

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There are tiny model houses that is run by electricity. I used to have one when I was little and just by looking at these makes me want to have my own collection too. The tiny details and the amount of work put into it are incredible.

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Of course, toy collections wouldn’t be complete without vintage board games. But this one is just a collection from Noddy.

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Surprise, surprise, the owners must have been a fan of Archie comics. They even collected cosmetics apart from dolls.

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Apart from Alice In Wonderland, it seems like the owners are huge fans of Popeye too. Their collection range from books, merchandises, figurines and toys.
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Toy soldiers are displayed neatly and organized according to its time period in history. There are medieval knights, soldiers from World Wars and warriors of ethnic tribes.

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I tried remembering the name of this castle but I couldn’t. Anyway, it’s on display too.Toy and Railway Museum-88

Part of the museum has been dedicated to HV Evatt’s memorabilla, an Australian judge, lawyer, parliamentarian and writer. There’s a collection of matches, tin cans, art materials, household products, pins, banknotes and what seems to be – coat strings.

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The doll collection is so varied in styles and time in history. The oldest one I can date back is a 19th Century ceramic doll called bisque dolls made in France and Germany wearing affluent clothing of the period. These kinds of dolls were popularized in the market until after World War I and marketed to the rich families. Some of the dolls from the collection were owned by the daughters in the family of this house. Toy and Railway Museum-76

There are also special edition dolls after the Queen and Princess of the British Monarchy.

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Fast forward to present time, Harry Potter and James Bond toy and merchandise collections are the first ones you’ll see as soon as you step into the house.  The James Bond collection has been arranged according to its franchise timeline too.

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Last but not the least, an extensive Barbie and Friends collection from the very first Barbie, Ken and Skipper dolls, designer editions, anniversary editions, movie merchandises, and limited editions to mark historical events.

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The very first edition barbie doll (1959) in its original packaging and stand wearing striped bathing suit, large white sunglasses, ring earrings, black stillettos, brushed wavy hair in pony tail. Available in two different hair colours: Blonde and Brunette. The first reproduction was released in 1994 in celebration of her 35th birthday and another was released in 2015.

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The first Ken doll was introduced in 1961, the toy displayed is still in its original packaging.Toy and Railway Museum-108

Skipper, Barbie’s younger sister, introduced by Mattel in 1964, a shorter doll standing 9.25 inches in height on its first release.

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Some designer Barbies including Christian Dior, Calvin Klein, Anne Klein, Macys, Ralph Lauren and Giorgio Armani.

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Barbie’s 50th Anniversary, MAC Cosmetics edition and Millennium Princess edition.

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Barbie Coca-Cola editions.Toy and Railway Museum-60

Barbie pageant editions:Toy and Railway Museum-65Toy and Railway Museum-66Toy and Railway Museum-68Toy and Railway Museum-109Toy and Railway Museum-110

Movie editions of Barbie dolls featuring Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, The Munsters and Wizard of Oz. Toy and Railway Museum-118Toy and Railway Museum-119Toy and Railway Museum-120Toy and Railway Museum-117Toy and Railway Museum-116Toy and Railway Museum-67

Barbie outfits throughout history:Toy and Railway Museum-121Toy and Railway Museum-122Toy and Railway Museum-43Toy and Railway Museum-44Toy and Railway Museum-86Toy and Railway Museum-81

Leuralla Toy and Railway Museum is located at 36 Olympian Parade, Leura in New South Wales, Australia. It’s included as one of the stops of Blue Mountains Explorer Bus  in Katoomba.

 

Joe Wright’s Brilliant Eye for Composition: Pride and Prejudice (2005)

There’s no questioning Joe Wright’s incredible talent in directing films. If you’ve seen at least Pride and Prejudice (2005), Atonement (2007), Anna Karenina (2012) and Pan (2015), it’s impossible not to notice his keen eye for artistic details for scriptwriting, character development, scene interpretation, dramatic lighting, shot composition and spatial awareness.

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This is the main reason why this is one of my all-time favourite films despite its historical inaccuracy and lack of faithfulness to the original book by Jane Austen. It’s more of an artistic interpretation rather than simply a film adaptation of a classic. If one prefers a perfect dramatisation of the book, BBC has done a great job in producing Pride & Prejudice (1995), a six-episode British TV drama. But hey, Joe didn’t direct this movie in order to create a duplicate film and that what makes his’ outstanding. I’ve pointed out a few commendable skills and aesthetics I admire about Joe:

Joe’s cinematography is like a love letter to the English landscapes. He has always wanted the character’s proximity to landscape and nature as close as possible especially Elizabeth who was shooting for the stars with her risk of being with Mr. Darcy. He finds it heroic for the lead character to have her feet on the ground and end up achieving her pursuit for romantic interest.

This is one of those films with multiple point of views were taken into consideration. Everyone has become a spectator and a victim at some point. I believe that Joe has consciously included voyeurism as an artistic approach in order to deeply understand what the character’s are going through and how they perceive the events in their surroundings.

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Joe as a director is very meticulous, he has admitted his like to minutiae, his obsession to details of everyday life, and I think it’s commendable to be this particular for a film. The trivial things he included makes the entire film deeper and more meaningful as you watch it over and over again. The rustic and plainness feel of the Bennet’s everyday things, the simplicity of their house decors, the kinds of food they serve on their table, and the differences in the gestures of different societal classes, all reveals a lot about who they really are.

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In terms of characters and their developments, he has portrayed their individualities, choice of words, expressions, familiarity in relationships, familial habits and the evolution of their character’s costume design.

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I will just leave this quote right here which perfectly describe how the costume design has been created for this film:

“I find empire line dresses are very ugly, so I did some research. Although the novel was published in 1813, Jane Austen wrote her first draft of “Pride and Prejudice”, then called “First Impressions”, around 1797. So we used the fashions of the earlier period, where the waist on dresses was lower and more flattering. When Caroline Bingley appears, she would obviously be wearing the latest creation. But Mrs. Bennet’s dresses are earlier than 1797, and Lady Catherine’s are even earlier, because those two would have best clothes from previous years in their wardrobe.“

(Joe Wright, Director)

Costumes are one of the best, easily spotted, telling things in a movie but often to differentiate between characters. In Pride and Prejudice (2005), it’s used to show the evolution of a character. It was mind blowing when I first noticed it years ago and it stuck to me until today.

Throughout the film, Mr. Darcy has evolved from a proud, snobbish and reserved gentleman, to apologetic, humbling and expressive fellow towards Elizabeth. His expressions and body gestures have drastically changed too. He started to smile and be more courageous in being open as an individual and his clothes reveal this change. From his uptight collar in the beginning, to his unbuttoned and loose shirt in the end.

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Joe has also portrayed how a common family like the Bennet’s would normally act on everyday life. Their unrefined table manners completely shows the difference between classes in society but also shows the deep familiarity between family members who care about each other.

Hands are also one of the most important tellings signs in the film. Physical contact was kept to a minimum and Joe has taken in great consideration the importance of showing hand gestures to portray the meaning and expressions of each character involved. It’s astounding how electrifying every scene has been portrayed shooting different emotions at play.

 The dance scene that is one of the most important scenes in the entire film. This is where the conflict has arises. In a time where physical contact can only happen through the dance, dancing is a very intimate activity between a couple. It’s sensual, electric and full of charge in a short time period of dancing in a very formal structure. The sexual chemistry between Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth was present and very much alive while exchanging sarcastic remarks. There were so many factors at play in this scene and unconsciously, their relationship leaped from merely acquaintances to troubled couple-in-the-making while doubting their own prejudice against each other.

Again, Joe used voyeurism in order for the audience to intrude at this particular intimate moment between the couple. The camera angle didn’t change all throughout the dance and was carefully following Elizabeth as she twirls and moves around the hall. Following the first few sequences, the intensity of the scene became more tensed as the music increased its volume and intensity. Their witty and sarcastic remarks grew more fierce as they exchange sharper gaze against each other. And finally, the intensity reached its peak as the confrontation between the two stopped them from continuing the dance. The particular camera angle and technique has lead to inspire the entire movie of Anna Karenina (2012).

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This film overall is circular. It’s definitely not one of those films that has an open ending. It completely starts and ends with a sunrise as it open and closes the chapter of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth.

Joe’s comprehensive take in composition of the entire film is both admirable and commendable. His great deal in aesthetic and obsession with details in every angle and every aspect are very impressive. I hope he makes more films as thoughtful as this and he needs more recognition in his field. I can’t wait to watch his upcoming film The Darkest Hour (2017) which will be released this year.

*Source: All images were taken from my favourite Tumblr blog Pemberley-state-of-mind.tumblr.com

NGV: Whistler’s Mother

Portrait of Artist’s Mother (1871), one of the most iconic paintings in the world, was exhibited in NGV, Whistler’s Motheralong with the artist’s and other Australian painters’ works that were highly influenced by Whistler’s art.

The original title of the famous painting is Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1, which refers to the exploration of form and colour rather than the portrait of his mother present in the painting. The original title was also inspired by the abstract form of music, with the use of “Arrangement of… No.1” a standard title commonly used in classical music.

It is quite surprising that a masterpiece popularly referred to as a portrait was not originally intended to be a portrait painting at all. The solid blocks of colours, the proportional alignment of each block, and the combination of warm and dark tones portrays Whistler’s strong geometric composition on this painting. It is also important to note that Whistler’s mother’s dress is a block of solid black colour, which is one of the abstract elements that he included.

Interesting though, Alfred Barr, director of MOMA in New York back in 1943, pointed out a mind blowing fact about this painting. He wrote that, without the image of the mother, this large-scale painting is, “a composition of rectangles… not very different from the abstract Composition in white, black and red [1936] painted by [Piet] Mondrian.” He then referred to this painting as a precursor of modern abstract art. 

IMG_6599Portrait of Artist’s Mother (1871)

All my life, like most people who have seen this painting, I looked at its biographical aspect and ignored its existing visibly abstract elements. It could be due to my lack of formal art trainings and my limited exploration of my interest to visual art which has always been finitely intrapersonal. Visiting this exhibit has sparked my curiosities of further understanding behind the visual elements of an art piece, the outspoken message it communicates and the admirable skill and personal history of the artist.

Staring at this large-scale painting alone, exhibited solely in one large room, while all spotlights illuminating only it, was so dramatic, it’s moving. The overwhelming feeling I had when I first laid my eyes on Juan Luna’s Spoliarium (1884) suddenly hit me again. Its grandeur, magnificence and emotional artistic value are undeniably present.

The layout of the entire exhibit itself was carefully crafted that it started introducing the early life of the artist, his life journey, his relationship with his mother and the meaningful backstories that eventually lead him to create such masterpiece. The layout was highly commendable for the dramatic effect it created for every visitor.


James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) is an American master artist who was born in Massachusetts, USA. His family moved to St. Petersburg, Russia in 1843 after the inglorious period of US Military Academy. In 1955, he trained in Paris as a painter for four years before moving to London. He created several works before his commendable masterpiece, Portrait of Artist’s Mother (1871), has been recognised as aestheticism, an art form which has a combination of realist and formalist elements.

Source: NGV Whistler’s Mother

 

 

 

Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei

It is such a privilege and a once in a lifetime opportunity to witness a major international exhibition featuring the late pop icon Andy Warhol and political artist Ai Weiwei. Being the two of the most significant artists of the 20th and 21st centuries, I was so thrilled when I first heard the news (a year before the start of the exhibition) that the National Gallery of Victoria has teamed up with The Andy Warhol Museum, in cooperation with Ai Weiwei, to organise such event.

The major exhibition explores the influences of both artists in modern art and contemporary life, which focuses on the parallels, intersections and points of difference between the two artists’ practices. Due to transportation, gallery’s area and other limitations to consider, not all iconic artworks of the artists have been exhibited at NGV for this particular event. Nevertheless, over 300 artworks of both artists’ significant contributions that delivered evocative messages were curated, which lead to my cultivation towards their remarkable life-long journeys. (National Gallery of Victoria)

I’ll start exploring the journey of Andy, who’s art I’m the least a fan of amongst the two. Ai’s extensive, massive and evocative installations beat Andy’s flat, complacent and mass-produced paintings. Ai’s works cover as far back as Ancient China up to the latest societal issues. But to be fair, Andy’s audacity and unconventional art practices have defined a new era of revolutionary artists and may have majorly contributed to Ai’s bold, dissident style.

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andyAndy Warhol carrying a Brillo Soap Pads Box photograph by Billy Name

I first heard of Andy Warhol when I got into Advertising. I wasn’t talking about the time I majored in the field in college, but the time I got really interested in the history and admired the glory days of the industry back in mid-40’s. (cue Mad Men’s theme – TV Series) One of Andy’s famous paintings is called the Campbell Soup Cans (1962) series in which he hand-painted each can of the product, arranged each variety according to its date of release, and observed uniformity through merchandising in grocery shelves.

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The Campbell Soup Cans (1962) is the epitome of Andy’s style when it comes to paintings. Detailed, commercial, low-cost, and mass-produced, similar to the popular products he took inspirations from. His silkscreen medium allow him and his assistants to instantly produce similar huge paintings in a short period of time.

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Another famous series of paintings by Andy is his tribute to the late Marilyn Monroe, which he created after the iconic actress’ death. He used a single photograph from the 1953 film Niagara as reference to re-create an entire series as a form of “..memorial and as a reflection of the media’s insatiable appetite for celebrity and tragedy.” (NGV Label of The Three Marilyns 1962)

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The Marilyn Diptych (1962) contains fifty images of Marilyn Monroe. Twenty-five images on the left are brightly coloured while the other twenty-five are in black and white, that suggests the relation between the celebrity’s life and death. The particular painting above is currently owned by Tate and unfortunately was not part of the NGV Exhibit.

IMG_6169Andy Warhol – Filmography 

Most people would associate Andy with the expression “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes” and his popular talk show “Fifteen Minutes” which aired from 1985-1987. Through my readings, I’ve seen at least three different interpretations for this famous expression:

  1. German art historian Benjamin H. D. Buchloh suggests that Andy’s style invalidates the hierarchies worthy to be represented, and once abolished, will be an opportunity for everyone to be famous; Or
  2. Fifteen Minutes represent the limited time a celebrity can only be famous; Or
  3. Due to the technological advancement and level of accessibility of today’s society, anyone can actually be virtually famous. (Wiki: Fifteen Minutes of Fame)

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I also came across different articles refuting the expression’s origin to be the words of Andy. The critics have suggested that the famous phrase was actually taken from the text of an exhibition brochure written by the curator rather than Andy himself. He tried to honestly confess the truth through interviews but it was too late. The society has already branded the expression as his and still continue to do so today.

Screen Tests (1964)

Throughout his career, celebrities, poets, musicians, socialites and other personalities posed for a short film at his legendary studio in Manhattan, the Silver Factory. The films capture the actions of the subjects at natural state and let the viewers interpret whatever narrative they desire.The Silver Factory has attracted many prominent people and has become a space for Andy’s social scene. In a span of two years, Andy has shot over 500 Screen Tests, which he prolonged to imbue a dreamlike stillness. Some of these prominent people include: Cass Elliot, Ann Buchanan, Bob Dylan, Donyale Luna, Billy Linich and Jane Holzer.

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Silkscreen Paintings of Mao (1970’s)

Andy’s repetitive paintings of Chinese Communist Party leader Mao Zedong portrays media’s proliferations of the image and advertising’s promotion of consumers’ desire and identification. Andy created these paintings during the height of cultural revolution in China that has been a global media spotlight. Andy’s numerous works of Mao portray him as a pop-cultural icon during his time.

Andy’s other silkscreen paintings throughout his career that defines today’s definition of pop-culture.

The core of Andy’s career is the portrayal of American’s consumerism: Inexpensive, low-cost, mass-produced, charismatic and popular. His means and the final products of his works both satisfy his core, which are clearly seen through his inspirations and the media he utilised.

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Andy’s painting of Coca-Cola first appeared in 1961. Six years later, he coated Coca-Cola bottles with silver paint as representation of source material. Three years more,  Coca-Cola Company responded with a cease and desist letter when he expanded his project to 100 bottles and filled it with his own You’re In / Eau d’Andy’ (1970). Get it? You’re In…

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Andy did not only focus on the glamorous lifestyle of popular products and celebrities. One of his thought provoking artwork tackles the clash of American Dream and violence in America. Incorporating a tabloid style, gloomy and sombre, Andy replicated the photograph from a newspaper with a headline ‘Did a leak kill … Mrs McCarthy and Mrs Brown?’ referring to the two women killed due to expired canned tunas. In Tunafish Disaster (1963), Andy portrayed how consumer products actually failed its consumers.

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In Silver Clouds (1966) and Cow Wallpaper (1966), Andy expands his artistic style to a theatrical scale by offering an immersive experience that encourages participation through floating metalised polyester films propelled by air currents floating from the walls into space itself. This particular installation exemplifies his fascination with serial production and repetition of pop-cultural imagery. Andy’s deployment of modern manufacturing techniques served as an introduction to a whole new era of art installations.

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Ai Weiwei

A Chinese contemporary artist and activist, I first heard of Ai Weiwei during the preparation of Beijing 2008 Olympics when he collaborated with Herzog & de Meuron in designing The Birds Nest.

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However, my interest in Ai Weiwei’s life only began in 2011 when the international media caused a stir on his arrest at the Beijing International Airport. Initially reported as arrest due to incomplete presentation of documentation for travel, the media uncover his alleged tax evasion case. Ai Weiwei has been known for his online presence writing social commentary and criticising government policies aside from sticking to his autobiographies and thoughts on art and architecture. He has always been known for his bold and unapologetic nature which are then transmitted through his art.

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Personally, I believe that Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (2015) is the quintessential artwork of Ai Weiwei. As one of his iconic works captured in both in video and photographs, this particular performative action of holding, dropping and smashing a cultural heritage clearly demonstrates his critical engagement with China’s violent cultural tradition. It draws attention to the continuous desecration of cultural heritage. As shown in the photograph, these images were re-created in plastic blocks representing pixelated forms for the distribution of his powerful message in the digital platform. He originally wanted to use Lego blocks for his other works as well but the company refused to participate in his political activism.

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During the dynastic changes in China in an attempt to erase the past and start over with the new regimes, much of Buddhist statues dating from the Northern Wei (386–535 CE) to Northern Qi (550–577 CE) dynasties were looted and only a few pieces survived today. In Ai’s Feet (2005)he sculpted stone feet on these remaining statues to show that the past cannot easily be erased and eventually catch up with the present.

IMG_6084With Flowers (2015)

At some point in his life, his audacity lead to his detention for 81 days. Every morning, he placed a bunch of flowers in the basket of a bicycle outside his studio and captured it on camera as a form of protest against his restriction to travel. He has posted images of these flowers on social media which emerged a movement called Flowers of Freedom.

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Ai Weiwei created this series in another art form through Bicycle Basket with Flowers Porcelain (2015) and Blossom (2015), this time, to protest against the restrictive rights of people through speech and human-rights. He collaborated with the skilled porcelain craftsmen from Jingdezhen province, whose predecessors once produced the highest quality of porcelain in Ancient China. Through this complex project, he has provided temporary employment to hundreds of people, whose livelihood has been declining through the years.

IMG_6087Blossom (2015) Bed of flowers made of porcelain

Ai Weiwei’s projects do not only focus on his bold actions against government policies and protests against restricted human rights, but he also continuously provides livelihood to the very victims of injustice. 

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Another perfect example would be the Sunflower Seeds (2010) which he created for his simple yet poetic exhibition. The extensive project has been collaborated again with approximately 1,600 skilled artisans of Jingdezhen producing over 150 tons of man-made Sunflower Seeds out of porcelain. Each piece have been individually hand-painted comprising of 2-3 strokes per side by the locals of the community and the entire project lasted for two and a half years.

Ai-Weiwei-Sunflower-Seeds-Still-from-Tate-video-9Image Source: Ai Weiwei Seeds

An excerpt from Ai’s Sunflower Seed’s website – Ai Weiwei Seeds – perfectly expresses the multiple yet simple meaning behind this project:

“For Ai Weiwei, ‘Sunflower Seeds’ is one piece of art that is composed of 100 million pieces of art. As a singular tiny sculpture, every seed is submerged by a hundred million ones with subtle nuances, similar yet each unique, just as 1,600 workers in Jingdezhen performing repetitive duties; as 1.3 billion Chinese, silent in the crowd; as every fragmented individual in this digital era. Through a sunflower seed, Ai Weiwei triggers a Domino effect, enlarging the lengthy, complicated and exquisite process by 100 million times. Devoting unimaginable patience, time and energy, he brings into focus the significance of individuals, and the imposing strength when they gather together.”

The video below shows the extensive and laborious process each Sunflower seed went through for this project:


Video Source: Ai Weiwei: Sunflower Seeds by Tate

 Ai retells his detention for 81 days back in 2011 through a series of dioramas entitled S.A.C.R.E.D. Maquettes (2011). The acronym stands for  Supper, Accusers, Cleansing, Ritual, Entropy and Doubt, which are the six parts of this series that are all made of fibreglass. It depicts scenes at the cell where he was imprisoned without charges that serve as evidences of oppression, denial of personal freedom and loss of dignity, he and several victims went through.

IMG_6141One of the dioramas in the series. It clearly portrays his lack of privacy and dignity throughout his time at the detention cell.

Ai do not only portray his messages through sculptures, print and dioramas, but he also take in consideration the type of material used in each masterpiece to deliver his evocative messages.

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In Surveillance Camera (2010), Ai’s practice of incorporating traditional materials in addressing contemporary cultural issues is evident. By using traditional marble to portray the elevated status of a significant artefact in this particular sculpture, this piece is very personal to Ai that relates back to his confinement at his studio while all his actions were being monitored.

handcuffsHandcuffs (2015) were both sculpted in jade and in wood. Jade is considered to be the most precious stone in China. Historically speaking, jade is worn only by the members of imperial family. Ai portrays the similar cuffs he wore during his imprisonment to address contemporary issues in the government.

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If there’s one project that clearly defines Ai Weiwei’s character and controversial career, I personally believe it’s the Study of Perspective (1993-2005). As seen in every photograph, Ai is giving a finger in every iconic location around the globe to express his disdain for authority. His audacious behaviour and poetic forms of powerful communication have inspired a new generation of artists in the 21st Century.

Andy Warhol x Ai WeiWei

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Some exhibits showcase a parallel in artistic value and in speaking social context beyond the world of art. In Neolithic Pottery with Coca-Cola Logo (2007), Ai portrays a pop-cultural imagery through the influence of Andy by painting a Chinese artefact and branding it with a logo that represents American capitalism.

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Myths are traditional stories explaining historical events or natural and social phenomenons. Ai and Andy both explore these myths through cultural archetypes from two different parts of the world. Circle of Animals (2010), is a reinterpretation of the twelve zodiac heads ransacked by French and British troops. It functioned as a water clock–fountain in the European-style gardens of Yuanmingyuan palace. “Ai focuses attention on the ethics of looting and repatriation, the role of the fake and the copy and power relations between China and the West.” (Source: Circle of Animals label)

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On the other hand, Andy presents the cultural archetypes in the American popular culture through a series of silkscreen paintings that run from Uncle Sam to the superstardom of Hollywood screen siren Greta Garbo and the innocent charm of Mickey Mouse. (Source:Narrative, myth and memory label)


Further Readings:

White Night Melbourne 2014

In 2013, Melbourne is the first city in Australia to join the ranks of global cities producing all-night arts events. Melbourne is known as Australia’s international city of artistic innovation. It embraces the opportunity to showcase its commitment to art, music and diverse culture.

When my family moved in to Melbourne in 2013, we were still staying at the service apartment along Elizabeth St in the city. It was the time White Night Melbourne premiered in Australia. I can still remember looking at tweets of people all over the city exploring the different activities simultaneously happening that night.

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This year, I decided to join the fun and see by myself what was out there. I only had a few hours to spend since I needed to catch the late train going home on a Saturday night, so I wasn’t able to explore every activity that was happening.

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First stop, I watched the Moonlight Synchronised Swimming at the Melbourne City Baths. A lot of people were already queueing all around the block just to get in. I was able to see the show Almost an hour later and the queue was even longer than before! *Yikes*

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On my way to our next stop, we passed by this food kiosk catering Filipino food just for the event! Proud to be Pinoy! I wanted to try it out but the queue was so long. 😦

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Then I went straight to the State Library of Victoria where various light works were being lit up on the facade of the library.

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Just across the road is the Melbourne Central. We had a quick peek on what’s going on inside and found out that the iconic tower was also participating. Amazing!

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The event was city-wide extending up to the other side of Yarra River. Several artworks and light performances can be seen along every stop.

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There were also live bands performing in some corners in the city.

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One of the big universities in the city, RMIT, hosted the galleries for the exhibitions. We managed to get into one and snapped a few artworks inside. There were also short films being played over and over again for everyone to see.

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Sooner than we thought, the night was over. I needed to get leave to catch our train. The entire Swanston Street was literally filled with people. It’s like flooded with people all over the place. Took me at least 40 minutes to walk down from the library to Flinders Station, which is like only 6-8 blocks away!

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Good thing a stampede didn’t happen during the event. I pity those kids forced to be there at that kind of situation. D:

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Even the iconic Flinders Street Station was part of the event. Several light performances were being lit on different parts of its facade! Incredible works!

But the night wasn’t getting any younger for me so I headed straight back home. Too bad I wasn’t able to visit the activities past the Yarra River. Maybe next year then!