Continuing our great living artists series we feature a Chinese artist who is as well known for his political activism as he is for his art, a Czech radical sculptor who loves to provoke and amuse, a hugely influential American artist who is continually cited as one of the best living artists by critics and artists and a journalist who created a new reportage using the medium of comic books.
Born in Malta Joe Sacco would spend his childhood in Melbourne before moving to the US for the first time. Trained as a journalist he would bring a unique aspect to the graphic novel with his illustrated reportage of situations and conflicts such as the Israel/Palestine and also the Suez and Bosnian Wars.
In 1992 he travelled to the Middle East for the first time and this experience of spending time in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip would enable him to produce his innovative and breakthrough comic book, Palestine, which was published in 1996. His next major work Safe Area Goražde was based on his experiences of four months spent in Bosnia between 1994-1995. Earlier this year Sacco produced a 24ft long panorama The Great War illustrating in fine detail the first day’s fighting of the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Martin Rowson, cartoonist and novelist, said of Sacco in the Guardian “The whole point of the medium is that it’s meant to be immediate because you consume images much more quickly than you consume text. It has to have a visceral effect, and as reportage, art and sequential visual narrative, his work is just brilliant.” (Images NerdPatrol and johannakoll via Flickr)
Czech artist David Černý subversive, provocative and playful nature was evident when as a young student in 1991 he and some friends decided to paint a memorial Soviet Tank pink. For good measure Cerny and co erected a huge middle finger on the roof. Other controversial works have included Shark an image of Saddam Hussein in a tank of formaldehyde, parodying Damien Hirst’s shark in formaldehyde, and Entropa, a sculpture commissioned by the Czech Republic to mark the occasion of its presidency of the Council of the European Union but which was used as a hoax by Cerny with less than flattering stereotypes of member states. Entropa was meant to have been completed by artists from the 27 member states but Cerny and accomplices made fake contributor profiles and fabricated descriptions of work from the made up artists. Cerny’s Brownnosing installation featured an over life size bottom part of a body with a ladder which people could walk up to an opening in the figure’s rear end and watch a video of Czech President Václav Klaus and Czech artist, musician and former dissident Milan Knížák eating slop while listening to Queen’s “We are the Champions.” Two of his most famous public works can be viewed in Prague today, the babies on the TV Tower in Zizkov and the King Wenceslas on inverted horse sculpture which can be found at the Lucerna Palace. (Images Wikipedia and grahamc99 via Flickr)
Jasper Johns is continually cited as one of the best living artists by critics and artists. He was part of the celebrated Abstract Expressionist painters which included Robert Rauschenberg and Jackson Pollock but also attributed to a progression focusing on the concrete and paving the way for both Pop Art and Minimalist. As such Johns can be viewed as a highly influential figure in modern art history. He has also been described as one of the greatest printmakers of any era along with the likes of Dürer, Rembrandt, Goya, Munch, and Picasso.
He is probably best known for his Flag paintings. The original Flag was painted when Johns was 24 after he had left the army and inspired by a dream of the American flag. The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei said of Johns ‘…He has a very scholarly approach—some kind of a philosophical language and exploration; he is clearly trying to define the meaning of the activity.’
AI Weiwei is Chinese’s most famous artist and political activist. In a sensitive diplomatic and media climate he has drawn attention and been highly critical of Chinese state activities drawing global attention.
Born in Beijing, AI Weiwei’s father was a celebrated and respected poet and intellectual who was a prominent member of the ruling Chinese Communist Party until he was denounced during the Anti-Rightist Movement. In 1958, the family was sent to a labour camp in Beidahuang, Heilongjiang, when Ai Weiwei was one year old. They were subsequently exiled to Shihezi, Xinjiang in 1961, where they lived for 16 years. Upon Mao Zedong‘s death and the end of the Cultural Revolution, the family returned to Beijing in 1976. Al Weiwei remembers this period as virtually living underground. This was a time when Weiwei first started learning about how to build things, a passion and desire which would serve him well in his artistic and creative life.
After studying animation at the Beijing Film Academy Weiwei would leave China to spend over a decade of his formative years in the US and mainly in New York. In New York he had to deal what he described as ‘struggle’ and ‘uncertainty’ – one guesses as a result of the culture shock of East and West or just a New York environment that made you question, laying bare a sense of self. But in New York he would embrace an artistic scene of Andy Warhol, Allen Ginsberg, Jasper Johns and Marcel Duchamp. In this period he would photograph New York life which he would later publish in underground books on returning to China. This project would be one of numerous artistic projects that Al Weiwei has carried out to date.
In 2007 Al Weiwei produced Sunflower Seeds, a specially commissioned work for the Tate Modern. 2 ½ years in the making, it required 1600 people in China to hand paint 100 million sunflower seeds made of the finest Chinese porcelain.
To highlight how thousands of children were killed and quickly buried, without parents having the chance to identify after a series of schools collapsed in the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, he used the power of his blog and social media to engage and confront what happened and the consequences. His part in the investigation of corruption in the construction of the schools that collapsed led to his imprisonment and the demolition of his studio. He also created a huge mural So Sorry in memory to the Sichuan tragedy that covered the entire façade of the Haus der Kunst in Munich with thousands of children’s back packs.
In terms of architecture and design Weiwei, with no formal training in this area, was responsible for designing the Birds Nest Olympic Stadium in Beijing and his work has been praised by Norman Foster.
Weiwei has been the subject of two documentaries, the most latest Never Sorry by Alison Klayman paints a picture of a fortunate playboy figure exploiting all the controversies to grandstand his art work and prosper financially, manipulating the media and power of the internt and social media for self promotion. Alternatively, an earlier BBC documentary Without Fear or Favour gives us a different insight of Al Weiwei’s art and politics which for Weiwei are intrinsically linked.
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