There are ideas for exhibitions that make luminous sense – once somebody has announced them. Andy Warhol – Ai Weiwei at the National Gallery of Victoria set off bells and whistles in my head when curator, Max Delaney, told me about it last year. It’s such an obvious match it seems remarkable someone in Europe or America didn’t get there first.
The NGV look set to reap the rewards for their quick thinking, judging by the size of the scrum at the media preview. Take Andy Warhol (1928-87) one of the few modern artists instantly recognisable to the general public, add Ai Weiwei (b.1957) – The Human Headline from China, and a publicity bonanza results.
In typical fashion the NGV has put on a spectacular display. Such showmanship has become one of the defining features of Tony Ellwood’s reign, drawing sighs and groans from Melburnians who like to think of the gallery as a solemn cathedral of art. If booming attendances are any measure of success the general public feels differently.
There are more than 300 works in this show, from a monumental sculpture made from bicycle frames, to the smallest snapshots and drawings. The two major lenders are the Ai Weiwei Studio, Beijing, and the Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburg, which will be the exhibition’s second venue. There are works from public and private collections across the world, and five new commissions by Ai. The most prominent is Letgo Room, the strained title referring to the artist’s recent stoush with Lego, whom he accused of kowtowing to the Chinese government, after the company refused to help him with a bulk order.
This has been a strange source of outrage as there was no obligation for Lego to participate, and nothing preventing Ai from purchasing as much Lego as he liked. Instead, his stocks have been shored up by private donations of Lego blocks from near and far.
I wish I could report the Letgo Room was a masterpiece, but it’s more like a children’s playroom featuring a heavy-handed celebration of Australia’s heroes of human rights, from Julian Assange to Rosie Battie. It feels like propaganda, or mock-propaganda. Ai would be conscious of the irony of a Chinese artist preaching human rights to Australians.
The political aspect of Ai’s work is his big point of difference, even though there have been plenty of essays that have tried to extract a social critique from Warhol’s art. I’ll come back to this, but first it’s worth looking at the similarities. The exhibition explores the affinities between the artists so thoroughly there is even a catalogue essay on their shared love of cats. This apparently trivial subject is made the theme of a truly stupendous children’s gallery.
Ai was able to study Warhol during the years he spent in New York, from 1981-93, but he is no mere copyist.
From their earliest years Warhol and Ai were both talented draughtsmen who found graphic art inadequate to their ambitions. The examples of juvenilia included in this survey suggest that two great careers in illustration went begging.
Both artists were fans of Marcel Duchamp, the man who gave us the ‘Readymade’, in the form of a porcelain urinal, a bottle rack, and so on. Ai, in particular, is a dedicated Duchampian, prepared to exhibit found objects, usually with some alteration, such as a Han dynasty vase with the Coca Cola logo, Qing dynasty chairs, or urns drenched in brightly coloured paint.
Warhol’s breakthrough idea was to portray items of everday life in serial form. He barely distinguished between soup cans and celebrities, treating Marilyn Monroe or Chairman Mao as commodities for mass consumption.
Ai warmed to the virtues of repetition, taking the concept to extremes in 2010 when he filled the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern with millions of hand-painted ceramic sunflower seeds. Such a feat could only be accomplished with quasi-industrial methods. It was obvious one could be more daring, inventive and productive if other hands were brought in the make the work.
In 1964 Warhol opened the first version of his Factory on the Lower East Side. In 1999, Ai built his own home-factory, in the Beijing suburb of Caochangdi. By 2003 it was the headquarters of his architecture and design business, FAKE. Both artists have taken advantage of the skills of their employees (to use an unromantic but accurate word) to work across a wide range of media, from painting, sculpture, film, music, publishing and performance.
Ai’s special talent has been for architecture. Using the simplest of styles he has become one of China’s most prolific architects, with a portfolio that would be the envy of many of his western counterparts.
Where Warhol and Ai have their closest match is in their willingness to comprehensively document their lives and times. Warhol was never without a camera and a tape recorder. His diaries have been published, along with his polaroids. He made deadpan, ambient movies such as Empire (1964), in which a static camera remained trained on the Empire State Building for hours on end.
Warhol has been hailed as a precursor of social media, while Ai’s blog remains one of his best-known art activities. Ai has also taken it upon himself to document the disappearing topography of Beijing in painstaking detail. The Second Ring and The Third Ring (both 2003), in which a camera crawls around the highways that circle Beijing, must be among the most boring films ever produced. Scarcely more interesting is the huge archive of snapshots Ai accumulated while living in New York. This exhibition includes only a small selection, but I had the mind-numbing experience of seeing a large show in Berlin.
Such activities might have appealed to Warhol, who famously said: “I like boring things.” He embraced boredom with his films and his repetitious silkscreen prints, although this isn’t how we read those portraits of Mao or Liz or Marilyn. On the contrary, there is an unnatural excitement about celebrities painted in lurid colours, as if this serves to highlight their difference from the rest of humanity.
The 1967 coloured prints of the Electric Chair used on Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, are genuinely eerie. We are attracted to the colour, but chilled by the subject. Along with the Death and Disaster series of 1963, these were works that seemed to comment on the way the mass media turns even the greatest horrors into a form of theatre.
Where Warhol became genuinely boring was with the celebrity portraits churned out by the Factory throughout the 1980s. Some have tried to characterise these works as a ‘faces of our time’ project. They were also shameless money-spinners. To use Warhol’s own term, they were examples of “business art”.
Ai also knows a few things about business art and the value of publicity. Although much of his work feels like a variation on themes already explored by western artists, the crucial point is that he was the first to make such pieces in a Chinese context. This is more than a game of historical precedence, it singles out Ai as a figure who is willing to push the boundaries in a fearless manner.
He owes his worldwide reputation to his readiness to speak out about human rights and other taboo issues in China. As a result of his outspoken comments he has been beaten over the head, imprisoned for more than 80 days, and confined to home arrest in Beijing. Recently the Chinese government gave Ai back his passport, perhaps belatedly recognising that the hardline approach has made him a martyr in the eyes of the world.
Ai’s image is indissociable from his political stance. On the back of a small book called Weiweisms, that might be seen as a spoof on Mao’s Little Red Book, he says: “Everything is art. Everything is politics.” One would never associate such words with Warhol, who was once upset that a critic called him “the Nothingness Himself”, then decided that he quite liked the title. Ai may be one of Warhol’s greatest admirers, but he has never coveted nothingness. The problem for audiences is how to square the riotous entertainment of this show with the political principles that Ai espouses. It seems that some contradictions are to be savoured, not resolved.
Andy Warhol – Ai Weiwei
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Until 24 April 2016
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 2nd January, 2016