GENIUS? NO WEIWEI
what Warhol is doing is much subtler, delving into the mass media promotion of celebrity, revealing while also enjoying the way it reduces famous individuals to simplified logo-like patterns, which can then be produced in arbitrary colourways. But some of Warhol’s most famous images end up as background to Ai’s more aggressive and obtuse statements.
In a later room we see early work by the two artists. That of Warhol would be more interesting in a smaller, more tightly focused exhibition, where we could follow the emergence of his pop vision from the decorative designer work of his beginnings. That of Ai is revealing: there is an extremely poor figure painting which looks like the work of a schoolchild who has not yet had the opportunity to do any life drawing. In contrast, there a couple of line drawings of urban settings that are very able, though essentially decorative and illustrative.
Of his later works, an overcoat with an attached condom is the most original, if no more than undergraduate in conception. Various other things, such as a shovel with fur or a violin with a pair of shoes, look like re-runs from the dada and surrealist tradition. Somehow in this setting even Warhol’s Brillo boxes, interesting in their time as a reflection on mass production precisely because these ones were individually made and printed by hand, seem rather dull. The best thing in the room is the film of Marcel Duchamp from the Screen Tests series, even though it is rather too big. It ends with a little smile, as though the elusive artist were reflecting that no one knew about the secret work he was preparing in his studio, Etant donnees, only to be revealed after his death in 1968.
There is a room devoted to the theme of flowers, with Warhol’s famous flower series of 1964 on the far wall and a much weaker later series on the right. The middle is devoted to an immense field of fine white porcelain flowers, which, we are told, were “fabricated in collaboration with” — or we might just say made by — “the finest craftspeople from Jingdezhen whose predecessors once produced the highest quality porcelain for emperors of the past”. This carpet of flowers is meant to allude to an episode in Ai’s persecution and purports to be a memorial for the oppressed, but it is a textbook example of the chasm between intrinsic meaning and the claims the artist decides to make.
We enter a huge room that encloses a smaller one, which was meant to be built of Lego until the company refused a bulk order on the grounds it might be used to make something contentious; presumably the toymaker was worried about angering the Chinese government. As it happens, it needn’t have worried, for the so-called Letgo Room, made of an alternative product from China, is a bland and even cloying feel-good anthology of Australians concerned with social justice, each represented by a portrait and a slogan.
The large surrounding room is hung with more Warhol portraits of celebrities on the side by which we enter. Unfortunately the overall impression is one of overproduction and of a formulaic process mechanically repeated. But at least Warhol would never produce a sentimental opportunity for the viewer to give himself a moral pat on the back for heartily agreeing with pious cliches.
Next is a series of photographs in which Ai has pictured his hand giving the finger to a series of famous places and buildings around the world. This undiscriminating act of negation reveals an ugly strain of narcissism that should probably not surprise us in light of the work with the antique pots discussed earlier. Meanwhile a collection of feet from Buddhist statues of the 4th to 6th centuries, destroyed in later
Mao Brillo Soap Pads Box
Detail from S.A.C.R.E.D. (2011-13) by Ai Weiwei, far left; Andy Warhol’s (1972) and