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,