Bowie Versus Weiwei

The work of Bowie and Weiwei once appeared simultaneously at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Bowie called his show “is”. Weiwei, as if to respond, called his show “According to What?” Both exhibits were reflections on late twentieth century identity possibilities. Both dealt with an individual’s relationship to a new sense of the world.

The main difference between the exhibits was that while Bowie capitalized on certain contingencies of this period, Weiwei confronted them. A couple of the more relevant contingencies include the rise of a global pop culture and the rise of a global economy. There are very different things at stake with Bowie wearing a coat made out of the flag of Great Britain and with Weiwei photographing himself dropping a two thousand year old Chinese vase on the ground. (Yes, it breaks.)

Another way of characterizing the key difference between the exhibits is that Bowie has a genius for recognizing emerging trends but Weiwei is actually a deep person. There’s a stark contrast between their two types of brilliance, between Bowie’s celebrity and Weiwei’s courage.

There’s no doubt that celebrity is a hugely relevant human reality. Bowie came off in his exhibit as intensely interested in himself, not as a participant in life, but as life’s star. He, “is”, which is what a lot of people want and need to see. Knowing someone else is on stage can give you the confidence to be yourself.

But, the courage evident in Weiwei’s pieces is a more relevant long-term thing. Weiwei’s pieces suggested that he’s compassionately attuned to society, with its participants and problems. He asked us to think about when we define ourselves, “According to What?”