Exploitation in Contemporary Art.

Contemporary art is the greatest example of exploitation our generation will see. A movement that continues to underpay workers, overpay artists and go so much further is damaging to society. For the sake of making a point or sometimes even just to make money, art becomes damaging to all those involved in it. Should modern art be stopped before the damage is irreversible? Whether it’s a plain, reductive piece selling for millions or an appropriation heralded as one of the greatest pieces of contemporary art, artists are toying with art communities around them. Damien Hirst exemplifies this when in 2007 he created an artwork For the Love of God studded with jewels valued over $100 million, capitalising on the gullibility of buyers. In contrast, Ai Weiwei boasts a very different kind of exploitation: appropriation, boasting many works pilfered from cultural wells spanning far greater than his own existence. Ai Weiwei’s Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn from 1995 is a manifestation of this. Stealing prominent symbols from a rich historic period in China’s history to create a single piece of art himself. Contemporary art is the greatest example of exploitation our generation will see.

Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995

Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn is a most overt example of appropriation, where Weiwei takes a work of classical high art, applies a basic idea and makes it his own through destruction. The work is a triptych of three photographs of Weiwei in the process of destroying a Han Dynasty Urn that dates to about 100BCE, the resulting triptych of Weiwei’s is not incredible in composition or style but only in subject matter. The fact that the urn was a genuine, 2100-year-old artefact from a period so definitive in China’s history and rich in culture does affect the depth of the finished art, making his meaning a “devastating satire on the modern world’s alienation from the past” as Jonathon Jones of the Guardian puts it, the honesty of the art emphasising a disconnection and radical diversion from times past.


When impersonators appear (notably like Uli Sigg – a collector who holds Weiwei in high esteem, actually using a central piece of his own collection in his copycat artwork) destroy iconic wares it reinforces the notion of replicability, and adds another layer of exploitation. Sigg – a collector – destroyed Weiwei’s Coca-Cola urn for artist Manuel Salvisberg. The photographs resulting are not too different from Weiwei’s iconic images, adding no variation upon what was once an interesting trick; forming grounds for a reasonable legal case from Weiwei pursuing the destruction of Weiwei’s work: a case which almost came to fruition. ArtAsiaPacific writer Alfred Jarry writes that this replicant brings into question the original piece, about consent for reuse and the entire validity of appropriation in contemporary art. Weiwei had no way to obtain permission from the creator of his urn outside of purchase and ownership of it, no permission from the culture he appropriated or permission from even the collector he bought the urn from – undermining the entire process of his destruction and further outcry once his art had been replicated – indicating that Weiwei must be as much of a fraud in his own work here as Salvisberg in his duplicate. This inability to create permeates other works of Weiwei’s like Forever, 2003. Forever is a large installation piece manufactured by hundreds of factory workers out of real bicycle parts, the individual designs of bicycles belonging to Forever, a Chinese bicycle company.


Appropriation is the concept underlying Weiwei’s work here and continues on in many of his other works but he also capitalises on the profitability of the art market. He exploits gullible buyers with works not aimed to spread his message or promote his ideas but to make money from these gullible buyers. Art is traditionally valued on the reputation of the artist, the cost of the materials, the cultural context and the individual meaning and quality of the work itself. Weiwei is aiming with Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn to exploit the market by adding an acquired cultural context, ramping up the cost of materials and not investing himself into the actual quality of the work itself. In this way, he is exploiting the contemporary art market to profit himself.


One might argue that he is using contemporary art to subvert his government and his nation. Weiwei comes from a period of Communism and Authoritarianism where every move that might be subversive was tracked and followed and this work of subversion was capitalising on this attack on freedom. Weiwei comes from a time of hardship and misery in which he was exploited to create this work, actually at one point using a quote from Mao – “General Mao used to tell us that we can only build a new world if we destroy the old one” – to justify his work Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn. Positioning himself on the side of the people he had been exploited by – even satirically – adds a level of depth and hypocrisy to the work that removes a lot of genuinity and power from the points that he is trying to make. His attempt to subvert his government is justified but not well-executed – his attempt inspires both criticism of him and indirectly his government, destroying a piece of defining Chinese culture.

Collectively, Ai Weiwei manipulates his audience by appropriating work and destroying an element of an incredibly rich culture which he is also forcing himself into.  Weiwei exploits the ancestors of a nation still rich with culture, vast swathes of China fortified or defined by a period symbolised in the very element he destroys, making his art – contemporary art – some of the most exploitative art in history and the greatest exploitation our generation will see. Weiwei has used exploitative means to reach an important communicative end. Contemporary art was leverage into the forefronts of people’s minds and into conversations on an important topic.


More thoughts on colour in art and design


Bibliography of Contemporary Art references

Allen, E., 2012. Ai Weiwei is not Afraid -. [Online]
Available at: http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/ai-weiwei-is-not-afraid
[Accessed 22 August 2017].

Cohen, L., 2015. Ai Weiwei: A Beginner’s Guide. [Online]
Available at: https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/article/ai-weiwei-beginners-guide
[Accessed 20 August 2017].

Delany, M., 2016. Max Delaney in Conversation with Ai Weiwei. January-February.Volume 8. [Accessed 21 August 2017]

Epstein, R., 2017. Important Art by Ai Weiwei. [Online]
Available at: http://www.theartstory.org/artist-ai-weiwei-artworks.htm
[Accessed 23 August 2017].

Hirst, D., 2012. Epiphany: A Conversation with Damien Hirst [Interview] (27 May 2012). [Accessed 20 August 2017]

Hirst, D. & Obrist, H. U., 2014. For the love of God. [Online]
Available at: http://www.damienhirst.com/for-the-love-of-god
[Accessed 12 August 2017].

Jones, J., 2014. Who’s the vandal: Ai Weiwei or the man who smashed his Han urn?. [Online]
Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2014/feb/18/ai-weiwei-han-urn-smash-miami-art
[Accessed 20 August 2017].

Mauk, B., 2014. The Case of the “Million-Dollar” Broken Vase. [Online]
Available at: http://www.newyorker.com/business/currency/the-case-of-the-million-dollar-broken-vase
[Accessed 18 August 2017].

Riding, A., 2007. Alas, Poor Art Market: A Multimillion-Dollar Head Case. [Online]
Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/13/arts/design/13skul.html?mcubz=0
[Accessed 9 August 2017].

Skelly, J., 2016. The Uses of Excess in Visual and Material Culture, 1600-2010. Montreal(Québec): Routledge.

Statistic Brain; World Bank; United Nations; Kimberley Process, 2012. Conflict Diamond Statistics. [Online]
Available at: http://www.statisticbrain.com/conflict-diamond-statistics/
[Accessed 13 August 2017].

Tancock, J. & Tung, S., 1993. Ai Weiwei. 3rd Edition ed. New York: Distanz. [Accessed 20 August 2017]

Comparison: Frederick McCubbin and Jan Senbergs

Two periodically different artists: Australian Impressionist Frederick McCubbin and Contemporary painter Jan Senbergs both paint on beautiful subjects and create magnanimous work but they are closer than you might expect in subject matter. Frederick McCubbin and Jan Senbergs discuss loss, sacrifice, hope, desperation and humanity to great effect across four paintings.

Frederick McCubbin’s work represents the culmination of a very important part of Australian art in the late 19th century. His triptych, The Pioneer is a carefully measured painting. Sketched and resketched, painted and repainted – it offers a powerful story common to many people of its time. It shares the story of migration, settlement, new lands and lost faces. It is reflecting “the self-conscious nationalism of the years immediately following Federation” (National Gallery of Victoria, 2014).

Frederick McCubbin the Pioneer (Image courtesy NGV)

Visually, the first panel uses darker tones, rougher blending and a stretched – almost dragged out – feeling through its structure. Subtle elements colluding to offer a kind of misery, worry and faded ambition unique to settlers of a new land, farming the edges of an outward-bound colony. This was the bleeding edge of Victoria’s settlement, mere decades after the land was discovered by Europeans. The face and body language of the woman here show the uncertainty of her world, she mourns for her soul and her future, gazing sadly towards it, still yet unknowing.

The horses in the background complement this idea and bow their heads both eating and mourning. The man here too offers an empathetic glance towards the woman – presumably his wife. The lives of these people are not wonderful or ambitious but reflect their time: modest, frugal and careful. The only evidence to counter this point is the woman’s rich green dress, made from velvet or fine cloth portraying some value to the viewer almost as a glimpse into her luck and her wealth, her promise for the future. It is as if she is dressing up for a welcoming, showing the trees and the land her good side, by doing this she is identifying with a suggestion of tradition also reflected by the classical triptych format, elevating “the status of the pioneer within Australian art history” (National Gallery of Victoria, 2014) to an almost godly level.

The second panel is far more optimistic, the drastically lighter chiaroscuro on the trees and the new house in the background with the glow on the ground immediately gives a sense of optimism, success, comfort and warmth. The glow in the ground here is provided by an extra layer of white lead primer which McCubbin was typically known to experiment with (Whitelaw, et al, 1993). I find that the effect of this brightening, firming, relighting action is one of hope. A baby is added too, offering promise, future and warmth through affection and family; the woodsman’s hat is removed, symbolic that he is at home.

The trees are given sharp but fluid and natural lines, the scraping, rubbing techniques of the left panel are replaced in parts with use of a brush. At the same time, more vivid energetic colours with these new techniques work together to offer hope, concretely embodied by a smoking house in the near background. A kind of story forms between these two parts of the painting, the cart becomes a house, the fire burns without being watched, a baby is born, a tree is felled: hope arrives. The wistful look of the key figure though is kept, though now it is not the woman but the man, wearied and bearded: wiser by his time, having lain down his axe. He thinks, perhaps on his wife’s worn green dress, held constant between the panels.

The third panel is one of both sadness and happiness. The gap in the trees is widened, hope blossoms and civilisation appears but a young man inspects a grave, a symbol of the passing of time, the passing of lives. He is wearing a hat not unlike that of the man in the first panel, potentially drawing a paternal link. The young man’s remembrance on the right who now is a pioneer again, rediscovering land once owned by the mother and father, revisiting the resting place of his father.

The narrative developed between the first two panels is extrapolated again, what was once a simple cart is grown to a house and then to what is recognisably Melbourne – a detail only added by the suggestion of an auctioneer after its production for sale in 1904 (Whitelaw, et al, 1993). The growth and fluid narrative in this three panel piece is symbolic of the immense prosperity of the time, following a gold rush that brought Australia to the front of international focus and on par with countries across the world that had been settled for hundreds of years, this painting is a symbol of the new hope so integral to many people’s decisions to expand, to grow and remains an ongoing theme today. Where I find myself migrating across the nation from Canberra to Melbourne it is influenced by the same ideas as this painting, a brighter hope, a greater good, a more prosperous future. Yet I am still only one tiny part of an enormous movement: as numbers of refugees and asylum seekers entering Australia today grows so does our recognition of McCubbin’s sentiment in the Pioneer that we must sometimes lose something so dear to us and invest in a great future enough to lead us forward. A contemporary spin on this idea does not change it for it is immortal and echoed throughout history.

Frederick McCubbin – Lost (Image courtesy NGV)

In Lost, McCubbin uses many of the same techniques to create a sense of anxiety, worry and serene exposure. The painting reveals a very calm setting, still and unmoving through lines drawn vertically preventing movement left or right, like a jail cell confining the most free in nature. He paints a pregnant figure in the focal area of the painting raising her hand to her head as if wiping tears or sweat away, where the Pioneer used darker spaces to paint a darker mood, surrounded, entrapped by trees but still held in open spaces. Lost has a structure and cultural context not unlike that of the first panel the Pioneer, it shows exploration framed with anxiety and worry for the future, a pregnant woman is amongst the trees worried for herself, the trees are not just trees but embodying Australia and she is not just herself but the promise and potential of new industry in a new land: Terra Nullius.

The careful yet fluid, sharp and vibrant strokes McCubbin uses not only with a brush but with cloth, palette knives and even his own finger are indicative of not just his supreme skill but the amount of detail and precision in the painting and as such the importance of every framed element, from the peeling bark on the foremost tree to the glint of promising sky behind her, the painting conveys precision and care in what seems to be a careless organic splatter of elements across the canvas, an element shared in the Pioneer in a way not found in all landscapes from the Heidelberg movement. While his strokes are visible they are not emphatic or excessive, using subtle movements to draw on the beautiful natural forms of nature, indicating – amongst the first of Australian painters as part of the Heidelberg school to paint en plein air – the raw beauty of Australia’s beautiful unrefined nature. This same idea of intimacy within the environment is evoked by the proximity of the painting, from a perspective amongst the trees as opposed to outside or above them “conveys the sense that this generation of painters felt that they ‘belonged’ in the Australian bush” (Astbury, 2007)

With this new cultural movement of a recognition of Australian beauty comes the development of Australia’s personal identity, the mateship and loyalty so commonly identified with our soon-to-be ANZAC legend and other key works from the time like Shearing the Rams by Tom Roberts or A holiday at Mentone by Charles Conder which all work together to strengthen this important identity inspired by collaboration, teamwork, mateship and loyalty. This entire episode is the maturity of a defining Australian movement and still relevant today when we look at the way our younger generations continue to commemorate the ANZAC’s.

Jan Senbergs – Lost (Image courtesy NGV)

Senbergs in contrast uses bright electric colours or flat monotone ones to convey a mood, an energy natural to an environment and furthermore a time and place. Fire and Smoke is a prime example of this electric mood, a vast swathe of oranges and blacks behind a cloud of murky orange-white blended carefully with a cloth or sponge all collaborate towards an energetic almost drug-like vibrance that causes the image to move and swirl, as fire really does. This confronting motion causes an unease, almost fear but in the same way a deep engagement with a faceless painting. If you interpret the stalks to be cultivated plants of some sort – wheat or barley or the like – you feel pain for the farmer who so carefully tended these or if not this then for a forest now lost to the raging fires but Senbergs holds this ambiguous by painting with broad strokes, both careless and natural but careful enough not to distinguish them. The angle makes it seem as if they might be crops but the forms of them indicate a tree or bush and the loss of colour to the electric oranges and whites of the fire leaves this ambiguity in the hands of the reader so as to evoke both pains. Where McCubbin used fine, careful movements to depict a moment of inquest, colours darker than life to intrigue worry Senbergs uses gestural painting, fluid but aggressive strokes to give a much brighter, more alive concern. Still even and equal but louder and more energetic.

Senbergs uses the painting to convey a message comparable to McCubbin’s; a way of life is at threat: change is due. In Australia fire means destruction and rebirth, for a farmer shock, but for revitalisation of land, for a bushman new sprouts and fertile soil. This very idea of loss and sacrifice for fresh start is so obvious in the Pioneer where a couple have left their home, sacrificed it for a new life, revitalised in the Australian country to be a part of a new city. Senbergs paints the same idea but in the form that nature offers it: as a destructive fire burning up the labours of man. This was in a time of new things, the dawn of the internet, a new kind of contemporary art rooted in a continuation of Marcel Duchamp’s idea of readymade, almost a loss of high art and refined brushwork like McCubbin’s, this is subtle but present in his work where his clouds of smoke are so heavily emphasised taking up two thirds of the canvas, fluid and natural with all the care of a modern Impressionist: as if high art itself is burning and in the foreground the rough gestural strokes are already burnt as if once they might have been Frederick McCubbin’s landscapes but now are reduced to these stalks bare of any refinement or focus.

We all experience at some point in our lives great sacrifice, applying for a new job, emigrating from one mind-set to another, moving to a new place, every risk and every decision we make we sacrifice something – this sacrifice, our ability to deal with it, the risks we do take define us and characterise who we are. I look inward and see sacrifice made often and wisely but I also see sacrifices made unnecessarily or unwisely but we cannot define ourselves off just this, it is personal and unique what we do with ourselves and again fundamental to our personal identities the risks we take, Fire and Smoke is a tableau of a moment within a risk, the burning of a field which is a loss but could well be sprout to a great and wonderful forest.

Jan Senbergs – Copperopolis (Image courtesy NGV)

Senberg’s 1993 piece Copperopolis is another painting which features loss. It shows sacrifice but not in the same way as the other paintings. In fact in Copperopolis it is the opposite – where it was not long term but instantaneous success which the protagonist sought, almost balancing this idea of loss now for gain in the future with this instant gain and long term loss. The painting depicts what was once a town, then a mine and then a dilapidated skeleton of a place. It is rendered in monochrome warm greys with little to distinguish forms but dark lines and rough shading. The detail of the painting is distracting and beguiling, drawing the eye from point to point without letting it settle on any one detail: a parallel with the cluttered chaos of life in copper mining – a subtext brought on by the title of the painting. This same detail is focused in the middle by convergent lines leading into an hourglass structure – as if the passage of time would steal the industry’s success or the wealth of underground copper – where yet another tumbledown mining outpost lays abandoned and grey left for the elements, a technique used in the Pioneer too. The centre panel of the Pioneer uses these concentric lines and favourable light to draw attention to the house, giving a sense of hope and reassurance, that contrast draws attention to the polarity of these two paintings, where one instantly reassures, another foretells a dark and gloomy future. In partnership with Smoke and Fire these two paintings both offer destruction, but in vastly different ways, one is greeted with instant destruction for long term reward but the other for instant reward in return for long term destruction, a powerful juxtaposition integral to the message of the artist.

These paintings touch deeply on paradox, loss and a journey and have thoughts from their own times that are applicable to all time and all people. Each embody sacrifice in their own way and address key ideas and themes common to all living beings. Frederick McCubbin and Jan Senbergs in similar but also greatly contrasting ways capture a lot about the human condition and the everyday life of humankind.

Note: this was originally an essay and has been reduced/modified for online use.


Frederick McCubbin and Jan Senbergs

Astbury, L., 2007. Memory and Desire: Box Hill 1885-88. Australian Impressionism, October, pp. 49-56.

Bunyan, M., 2016. Exhibition: ‘jan senbergs: observation – imagination’ at the Ian Potter centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne. [Online]
Available at: https://artblart.com/2016/06/06/exhibition-jan-senbergs-observation-imagination-at-the-ian-potter-centre-ngv-australia-melbourne/
[Accessed 1 May 2017].

National Gallery of Victoria, 2014. Work of the Week: Frederick McCubbin, the Pioneer, 1904. [Online]
Available at: http://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/frederick-mccubbin-the-pioneer-1904/
[Accessed 2017 May 1].

Stephens, A., 2016. ‘It is very hard to think these days’: Jan Senbergs stays true to his art. [Online]
Available at: http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/it-is-very-hard-to-think-these-days-jan-senbergs-stays-true-to-his-art-20160226-gn4ww9.html
[Accessed 1 May 2017].

Whitelaw, B., Payne, J. & Leahy, G., 1993. The art of Frederick McCubbin: a view of his materials and technique. Art Bulletin of Victoria, 1 August, Volume 33.

Frederick McCubbin and Jan Senbergs

Illustrator’s five most easily fixable problems

When you start a blog like this one there are a few customary posts which stuck up idiots like me are compelled to make. This is not any attempt to demean those who have not been sucked into the ridiculous obsession I have but simply my chance to help you improve your  Illustrator workflow.

Interacting with shapes

The number one most common area I get questions about in Illustrator is about interacting with shapes. It’s a really basic area of Illustrator which you need to get before you can do anything else. The question tends to be “How do I put these two shapes together?” or “How could I take this shape out of that shape?” and there’s a simple answer to every question.

Illustrator Shape Builder
Shape Builder in action


My solution is one tool which makes it easy for me to visualise things and it’s the Shape Builder tool (Shift+M). The Shape Builder tool lets you interact with lines and fills – you can create them, subtract them, add them or separate them. It has a cousin in the Pathfinder menu which is a tab (pictured) that lets you do the same things but it revolves around layer order and a lot of the time I find it difficult to predict the results of the Pathfinder. More on the Pathfinder tool.

Illustrator's Pathfinder tab
Illustrator’s Pathfinder tab


Shape Builder has a fairly basic interaction – hold down alt to subtract which will basically hollow out a fill or completely erase a section of a line up to the next intersection within the selection or leave the alt key as it is and you can separate fills or lines within the intersections of shapes and lines. More on the Shape Builder tool.

Scaling evenly

Illustrator's offset path tab

The next problem is also a very common one that I find myself having all the time. I don’t know when to scale and when to offset. I try to steer clear of scaling irregular shapes as much as possible but that’s not to say that it can’t look good. The picture here shows the difference and they are both useful for different things. The art with the tube-looking thing is an example of an interesting way to use the scale tool.

Illustrator Blend toolScaling vs Offset path in Illustrator


Closing Paths

Illustrator Meme
Courtesy of Digital Synopsis

It’s the bane of every Illustrator user’s existence. That one little point you forgot to join to that other one little point. It’s really important to close paths. It’ll probably never stop being important but it will stop being undetectable. The Shape Builder tool is a great way to figure out where your holes are. It shades a selected area on mouseover and I find it’s very helpful sometimes to figure out that last missing point. If you’re ever connecting points make sure you have Smart Guides turned on! (Cmd/Ctrl+U)

Not duplicating

I like to duplicate my work at every major change. I do it so I have a resource I can refer to later or go back to in case I mess the next step up. Using artboards is the easiest way to do this (Shift+O opens the Artboard tool) and you can copy the artwork in position on it’s artboard every time. Every time I expand an effect or change an attribute I like to duplicate the artboard or make a copy. You have to be careful because you do sometimes end up with massive files but it saves time and makes for a better workflow. More on Artboards.

Too Many Anchors.

Illustrator is making it easier and easier to make sharp lines with careful edges without having to use a compass and stencil but it’s very easy to get sucked into using too many anchor points. Using the pen tool always aim for modesty: not only does itmake the page cleaner and give it more natural curves but it reduces size which is really important when you come to work on a larger scale when using three points instead of nine will cut your latency in half. The picture shows excess points on a straight line and then all the points on straight lines removed and the curves simplified.

Illustrator optimisation

If you have a path already with too many anchor points then there’s a quick (but not always reliable) fix for that which avoids having to manually select points or recreate the path. Go to Object > Path > Simplify… and check preview to find your savings and your new image!