For my last post on the Fotoblog, I’d like to show you a new book. Warhol in China is a collection of the photographs the Pop supremo took on a trip to Beijing and Hong Kong in 1982. The society he encountered was the very opposite of America, whose mass-consumerism had fuelled his artistic output since his first exhibition at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles twenty years previously . In fact China displayed almost no commercial influences at all. The country had only recently been open to the outside world following Chairman Mao’s death in 1976 and the emergence of its art scene had been cautious and incremental.
Warhol was invited there as a guest of Alfred Siu, a young industrialist whose portrait he painted that same year. Siu was opening a nightclub in Hong Kong, and had commissioned Warhol for portraits of Prince Charles and Princess Diana. Also on the trip were photographer Christopher Makos, Fred Hughes, Warhol’s flamboyant Texan manager, Hughes’ girlfriend, the English aristocrat Natasha Grenfell and documentary maker Lee Caplin. The group flit in and out of Warhold’s photographs, usually as bystanders, although Siu himself is often centre stage.
Whilst Warhol was at the height of his fame in his home country, the 54-year-old artist was virtually unknown in the People’s Republic of China. Nevertheless the Far Eastern country’s isolation really appealed to him. His photographs are a cross between the kind of visual note-taking we would expect from an established artist, and a more-awe-infused snapshot view of a way of living that was so different from his own. They’re a real treat, offering valuable insight into the way he saw. You can see him watching carefully, making links, searching out the fault lines of a culture that espoused simplicity and conformity.
Only a tiny fraction of Warhol’s prodigious SLR output has ever been published or exhibited. He only really began using this Minox compact in the last decade of his life, and so the photographs are one of the few aspects of his practice offering new discoveries and insights.
The book also includes some of Warhol’s diary entries from the time, as well as a few examples of his influence on Chinese artists, and an introduction by Ai Weiwei.