Christo­pher Allen

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

The Chi­nese govern­ment has clearly, if un­in­ten­tion­ally, done Ai Wei­wei a huge favour by in­ter­mit­tently per­se­cut­ing him over the past few years, no­tably in de­tain­ing him with­out charge for 81 days in 2011 and sub­se­quently plac­ing him un­der house ar­rest and con­fis­cat­ing his pass­port for sev­eral years, un­til it was re­turned in July.

It has turned an oth­er­wise mi­nor artist into an in­ter­na­tional celebrity able to con­vert political dis­si­dence merit points into art world cred­i­bil­ity and who now has to do lit­tle more than ha­rass hap­less po­lice­men on cam­era, ham it up do­ing his own ver­sion of the South Korean one­hit won­der Gang­nam Style and keep up a steady stream of so­cial me­dia com­men­tary to be con­sid­ered one of the most im­por­tant artists in the world to­day. As his lu­di­crous grand­stand­ing in Les­bos re­cently showed, no is­sue, how­ever trag­i­cally com­plex, is safe from his re­lent­less self-pro­mo­tion.

He has reached that en­vi­able point in a con­tem­po­rary artist’s ca­reer — com­pa­ra­ble to a satel­lite en­ter­ing the al­most ef­fort­less cy­cle of or­bit — where any­thing he does is art, or any­thing he gets oth­ers to do for him. In this re­gard at least, he has some­thing in com­mon with Andy Warhol, whose work­shop, the Fac­tory, churned out the prod­uct on dis­play in the Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria’s ex­hi­bi­tion, which was the sub­ject of a sus­tained cam­paign of me­dia hype in the lead-up to its open­ing.

Per­haps all the hype was in re­ac­tion to ap­pre­hen­sion that the ex­hi­bi­tion, for all its ex­trav­a­gant in­stal­la­tion, vast spa­ces cov­ered in wall­pa­pers and metal­lic foil, is not very en­gag­ing and might need all the pub­lic­ity it could get. It’s not clear why any­one would think of show­ing th­ese two artists to­gether, apart from the fact they share the same ini­tials, and that Ai took a photo of him­self im­i­tat­ing the ges­ture of Warhol in 1987, the year of the lat­ter’s death.

The ex­hi­bi­tion is too big, too un­s­e­lec­tive, shape­less and in­con­clu­sive, and the two artists, de­spite some coin­ci­dences, such as a com­mon in­ter­est in the im­age of Mao Ze­dong, have many in­trin­sic qual­i­ties that are an­ti­thet­i­cal rather than in har­mony or mean­ing­ful di­a­logue, so the re­sult is both dif­fuse and flat. There is also far too much weak work by Warhol, which seems to be an ever-present dan­ger of ex­hi­bi­tions pre­pared with the col­lab­o­ra­tion of the es­tate or legacy foun­da­tion of an artist; such bod­ies un­der­stand­ably tend to over­value the art they own and feel it is their duty to show work that is less well-known, of­ten for good rea­son.

I had al­ways sus­pected Ai was one of the most over­rated artists of our time, but I was pre­pared to be sur­prised; un­for­tu­nately the first room con­firms that the most fa­mil­iar works are in­deed the most defin­ing and dis­tinc­tive things he has done, and they are un­ap­peal­ing. What is re­ally fas­ci­nat­ing, though, is to read the con­torted jus­ti­fi­ca­tions on the ac­com­pa­ny­ing la­bels.

By far the most fa­mous thing Ai ever did was, in 1995, to drop an an­tique pot on the ground and shat­ter it — while hav­ing this ac­tion pho­tographed, it goes with­out say­ing. Google his name and this is still the se­ries of pic­tures that comes up. The vase was about 2000 years old, from the Han dy­nasty. The NGV la­bel re­as­sures us that what we might have mis­taken for an act of van­dal­ism is “one of the artist’s most iconic works and demon­strates his crit­i­cal en­gage­ment with China’s vi­o­lent cul­tural tra­di­tion”, and claims that it draws at­ten­tion “to the des­e­cra­tion of cul­tural her­itage”.

Nearby is an even older vase, from the Ne­olithic pe­riod, on which he has painted the brand Coca-Cola in sil­ver paint. The la­bel de­clares this is “a rich al­beit un­easy con­fronta­tion of el­e­ments” and that it “de­liv­ers a nu­anced cul­tural com­ment”. In the middle of the room, fi­nally, is a whole col­lec­tion of an­cient pots, made this year but part of an “on­go­ing se­ries since 2006”, which makes one won­der how many such ves­sels have been sac­ri­ficed to the build­ing of Ai’s rep­u­ta­tion.

Here the la­bel in­forms us that “Ne­olithic and Han vases are plunged into tubs of in­dus­trial paint to cre­ate an un­easy con­fronta­tion be­tween tra­di­tion and moder­nity. In what might be con­sid­ered an icon­o­clas­tic form of ac­tion paint­ing, Ai gives an­cient ves­sels a new glaze and painterly glow, ap­peal­ing to new be­gin- Andy Warhol / Ai Wei­wei Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria, Mel­bourne. Un­til April 24. nings and cul­tural change through trans­for­ma­tive acts of oblit­er­a­tion, ren­o­va­tion and re­newal.”

This is not only ut­ter non­sense from al­most ev­ery point of view, but an ex­am­ple of weasel dou­ble­s­peak that would make even a pro­pa­gan­dist of the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Party blush. In re­al­ity th­ese ac­tions and in­stal­la­tions treat the work of hum­ble crafts­men of an­other age with con­tempt in the process of self-pro­mo­tion and the pro­duc­tion of a fash­ion­able art com­modi­ties for the con­tem­po­rary mar­ket. They are ex­am­ples of a rad­i­cal lack of re­spect; and al­though the artist him­self did not write the text of the la­bel, it is hard to take se­ri­ously any­thing else he may as­sert about truth or au­then­tic­ity in any other con­text.

Al­ready in this room we have an ex­am­ple of the way the work of the two artists sits un­com­fort­ably to­gether. For al­though they are meant to be joined un­der the con­cept of iconoclasm,

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