GE­NIUS? NO WEI­WEI

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

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

(1964)

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