Just before ending my life as a lawyer, I made the voyage south to see my dad and his wife who had relocated to Melbourne after a decade huddling at a Northumbrian fireside in deepest northest UK.
Needless to say, he’s thrilled to be in a country that doesn’t regularly produce chilblains. I’m thrilled just to have him in the same country.
I have strong relationships with both parents and now, as an adult, I really appreciate and enjoy the (fairly) equal footing on which our discussions take place.
Aside from general discussioning (totally a thing) and his propensity to pick up the tab (thanks Dad), going to art shows with my dad is excellent because of his immense wealth of knowledge (courtesy of sixty plus years of devouring art books, even those not written in any language he reads). In fact, the only bad thing about going to shows with Dad is his near-complete absence of patience.
So probably I should have known.
In November I told him I’d be visiting early in the new year and that it would be a good time for the two of us to go to the Wei Wie Warhol show as, halfway through its epic run at the National Gallery of Victoria, there would probably not be any queues (this was incorrect). Dad affirmed, and the plan of action was agreed.
Of course, he went and saw the show without me.
Greeted by this news on arrival, on a bitterly cold Melbourne morning, I asked him what he thought. Was it any good? He looked pained and said it was clear who the stronger artist. So on that ambiguous note - and with some lowered expectations - we set off from the show (via food because well, priorities).
The queue was huge. Almost as big as the Weiwei installation fronting it, the 1500 stylised bike frames forming a dramatic almost-pyramid.
The exhibition itself is similarly huge, using all of the exhibition space on the ground floor of the NGV it requires viewers to enter the first half of the exhibition, immerse themselves then exit to the common foyer of the gallery before being re-immersed in part two of the show. Given this structure, I had hoped that the sections would be themed in some way, with different ideas explored in the different rooms but the whole (giant) show is a composite mishmash of works from both artists.
In one of the first rooms, a set of Weiwei’s industrially-dipped relic pots stands on a podium positioned directly in front of a series of Warhol’s soup cans. The pots are honestly powerful works, I’ve always liked how Weiwei’s work explores the notions of making, unmaking and remaking and in doing so questions the deference commonly given to antiquities. But the soup cans speak so universally and so loudly it is almost tempting to cover your ears. So the pots, adjacent, lose serious ground. Suddenly they’re what you walk past to get closer to the Warhol, which pulls you in in an almost unfathomable vortex of colour and shape.
Still in the making / unmaking arc, one of the first Weiwei works I ever saw was his ‘Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn’ (1995) which to this day I would rate as one of the most powerful (and most powerfully uncomfortable) pieces of modern art. Unfortunately, that photo-triptych is not included in this exhibition - though there is a tapestry of one of the three stills on display. The gasp-inducing power of the photos however is unduly softened by the medium.
You’ll forgive me if I skip blithely by the ham-fisted mock-propaganda rendered out of Lego in the aptly named ‘let go’ room; it is an awkward fall from grace for the artist of such spellbinding pieces as ‘The Sunflower Seeds’ (2010) which filled the turbine hall of the Tate Modern with thousands of beautifully crafted porcelain seeds (before being banned from human walking for health and safety reasons).
In another room, Weiwei’s Blossom (2015) - a mammoth installation of hundreds of delicately designed white porcelain flowers - is framed by Warhol’s prints of the same subject. The effect here is closer to what I imagine is the exhibition’s intent; the works speak to each other and balance one another with neither demanding more of the viewer to the exclusion of the other.
More than the extensive photo / video displays (which I confess, bored me), this was the room that, through the scale of the works and the repetition that formed them, impressed upon me the strong parallels in the approach taken by both Weiwei and Warhol to the process of producing; and the production process. Both embraced large-scale production houses, employing numerous people to assist with creating (churning) various types of artistic (commercial) endeavour.
The benefit of this approach is that it allowed both artists to work across a broad spectrum of media; the downside for the viewer being that it is impossible to really tell what is by whom. Which you may say either doesn’t matter or is simply an extension of the studio concept pioneered by the Old Maters and their painting workshops.
Swayed intellectually though I am by both arguments, I can’t help looking a little closer at such works; trying to find the heart.
As a whole, the exhibition makes much of the parallels between the artists and is adept at showcasing the similarities in areas of interest and exploration in both artists’ bodies of work.
Of course, without the context as to Weiwei’s unique position both in Chinese art and in creating a dialogue that bridges western and eastern art the inference is the lingering question; ‘Why is Weiwei still playing with variations on these same themes 40 years after Warhol’s death? …isn’t it a bit tired?’
The danger of removing Weiwei’s work from his context as a ground-breaking and politically subversive Chinese artist is also evident in the decision not to include any explicit reference to his work as a pioneering Chinese activist. Weiwei has previously stated that he wouldn’t separate his activism from his art but that is exactly what this exhibition does; in putting Warhol and Weiwei side by side in a void it suggests that Weiwei’s work is made in a similar context to Warhol’s and is faceted by the same values and ideals.
This is frankly untrue and does Weiwei a disservice in sucking him into the splashy vortex of Warhol where there is no East or West, or oppressive totalitarian regimes worth contesting, but only rampant consumerism and a consumptively colourful nothingness.
The thing is, as Warhol’s works rely only on themselves and the shared pop culture of modern Western discourse, they happily float without particular context. Weiwei’s work on the other hand, although arguably more layered and complex in its commentary, is diminished through a presentation that destroys (or depletes) its contextual grounding.
So Warhol comes out unscathed, but Weiwei is definitely a little damaged. It is an unfortunate outcome for a brave and innovative show that has amassed an impressive breadth of works for display. I do recommend going if you can though, exhibitions that you are still thinking about a month after viewing are exhibitions worth viewing!
Andy Warhol – Ai Weiwei runs until 24 April 2016 at the National Gallery of Victoria and an adult ticket will set you back a whopping $26 with a concession still punching in at a hefty $22.50.