BY THE early 1980s, Warhol was not an artist in critical favour. The art world had moved on from the Pop Art and Minimalist sensibility of the 1960s and ’70s and was looking for new commentary on a western world that was changing rapidly. Warhol’s ‘art about nothing’ no longer reflected the spirit of the time or place – the zeitgeist – to use the noun of the moment. Robert Hughes, an art critic widely respected for his insight and critical rigour, wrote in The New York Review of Books in February 1982 that ‘…Warhol’s output for the last decade has been concerned more with the smooth development of product than with any discernible insights…. It scarcely matters what Warhol paints; for his clientele, only the signature is fully visible.’
There’s some validity to this view. ‘Eighties art meant increased visibility and vocal social comment about diversity and identity, power and subjugation, consumption and desire. In Australia the work of artists such as Mike Parr, Rosalie Gascoigne, Leslie Dumbrell, Imants Tillers, Juan Davila, Victor Majzner, Rover Thomas, Queenie McKenzie and Peter Booth, amongst many others, reflect the diversity of art practice in Australia and the acceptance of artists with different voices and perspectives that were not just about a European experience of trying to make sense of this (no longer) alien place called Australia, but more about our sometimes confronting and difficult community of different cultures, values and experience. In the wider world, European artists were once again prominent, after three decades of American domination. The likes of Rothko, Close, Rauchenberg and the White Mole of Union Square himself – Andy Warhol – were replaced by the new world vision of Julian Schnabel and Georg Baselitz; David Hockey had discovered technology and started on a journey with his joiners – images constructed of sometimes dozens of smaller images – and Gilbert and George were in full flight, with works such as Death Hope Life Fear, (1984), tapping their feelings and experiences of inner-city life and how environment, through social structures such as religion, class, nationality, politics and law and life’s challenges and sometimes imponderables (death, identity, sex and fear) all contribute to the lifelong development of an individual’s character and personality. These themes continue today and feature in the work of Ai Weiwei – artist, architect, designer and social commentator, voted ‘most powerful artist in the world’ by the editors of Art Review magazine in 2011.
Which brings me to the National Gallery of Victoria International’s (NGVI) latest summer blockbuster Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei which runs until April 24. This is a giant of an exhibition, worthy of the title. Spread over much of the ground floor, over 300 incredibly diverse works are on show and include photographs and film, paintings, prints, sculpture, books, music, recordings and even social media. The point of this feast is to, in the words of the Directors of its joint creators, the NGVI in Melbourne and the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, ‘explore the significant influence of these two exemplary artists on contemporary life and art by focusing on the intersections between their practices.’
So let’s sift through that for a moment. First, consider the significant influence on contemporary life from the above statement. My first question is, ‘When is contemporary, exactly?’ I agree that Ai is contemporary now and his continued practice, taken-as-given, will be for some time. Warhol as contemporary, on the other hand, I have a bit of a struggle with. As to influence, much has happened since Warhol’s death in February 1987 and at that time his influence had waned, his relevance was questioned. I ask myself how has his work impacted my life since the 1980s – and now. My answer is ‘not much’. It hasn’t provided many occasions to pause for thought over that time, with the exception of slack-mouthed wonder at the size of the bids his work has attracted at auction over the last thirty years. However, I have no doubt his influence between 1962 and 1968 was substantial and his innovation at that time both striking and thought-provoking, so while it’s 2016, not 1966 and fifty years ago is not, in my mind, contemporary, I can acknowledge that he was influential at one time, at least.
The second part of the statement to consider is the intersections between their practices. Much is made throughout the exhibition and in the massive catalogue that accompanies it of their shared influences, common motifs and symbols. Marcel Duchamp and the Dadaist school is cited often, as is how both artists exploit a found, readymade object as the basis for new work. The use of commercial art and its loud and jaunty aesthetic as a means of stimulating an internal debate in the viewer as to what art might be, and what it definitely isn’t, is also ever-present. So is this a valid topic for exploration? Yes, it is.
So maybe the idea is, ‘let’s look at how Warhol’s work and life helped influence the shape, sensibilities and culture of the first world in ’60s and compare that to Ai’s recent influence – say from 2009 to 2015’. If that is the challenge, then it is implied by this exhibition that the natural conclusion for such comparison is that Ai is a successor to Warhol and that he continues the work started by the albino wig’d one. That underrates Ai significantly. For there is one stark and major difference between the two despite the similarities.
Ai Weiwei is in every sense, an active, subjective commentator. His work raises questions and provides an opinion on a raft of those topics mentioned earlier – religion, politics, national identity, death and justice. Warhol, on the other hand, encapsulates a journalistic, objective, observer approach – there is no judgement or explicit commentary in celebrity polaroids or soup cans, nor does the interminable film Empire reveal any semblance of opinion, only eight hours of observation.
A case in point is Ai’s With Flowers, 2013-15, and the comparison pieces by Warhol, Flowers 1970 and Flowers (Hand Coloured) 1974. The choice of flowers as subject matter by both artists continue a long tradition in art. 17th-century Dutch masters loved them, as did the Impressionists. Picasso enjoyed a good flower from time to time; Margaret Olley couldn’t paint without them. Flowers have proved a useful visual symbol of remembrance and tribute, and as motif representing purity, life and hope, the transient nature of youth and beauty and of achievement and triumph. Ai’s With Flowers is a comparatively simple construction of bicycle and a bouquet of flowers perched in the carry basket that’s attached to the bike’s handle bars. Over some 20 months, the flowers were changed every few days so that the display was always fresh, alive and vibrant. Warhol’s Flowers are made using his familiar technique of using a found image (in this case of hibiscus) that have been manipulated to create a new image and then reproduced by silkscreen printing.
Having established that the starting point for both artists is the common and honoured artistic subject of Still life with flowers, the resultant effect, influence and relevance of each are poles apart. While a changing display of flowers perched in a bicycle’s carry basket, photographed and displayed as a giant mural, is, of itself, potentially as banal as a stack of Brillo cartons, Ai makes sure through context and wide communication that we understand that this is his means of protest over the Chinese government’s confiscation of his passport and by extension, a wider commentary about the power of the state, of mourning the loss of individual freedom, of remembrance of past travels and experiences and of hope for the future. The image on the gallery wall is only one aspect of the overall work, one that is part photography, part protest, part performance and jointly, unquestionably, powerful. Net relevance to my life now and influence over my thoughts and view of the world in this current time of ISIS, Australian Detention Centres, Chinese expansion in the South China Sea and North Korea’s ambitions – extremely high. Warhol’s Flowers, on the other hand, is a combination of attractive design, vibrant colours and unusual composition that creates a new (for 1970, anyway) view of an old subject. It remains for me however, no more than an exercise in colour and design and a testament to the camera’s ability to record minute detail and Warhol’s consummate skill, despite the attributions of meaning various critics have attached to the work over the last thirty years. Relevance to and influence over me, now? Not much.
While this is but one example, many works from each artist have been carefully selected to enable comparison in the same way as With Flowers and Flowers and each pairing appears to attempt to support, by implication, the idea that Ai is the new Warhol. However, that fundamental difference – subjectivity over objectivity and overt statement versus covert documentation – continues through all of the works on display and doesn’t support such a conclusion.
That said, don’t think for a moment that I think this is a failure – far from it. There is no doubt this is an exhibition worth seeing and the curators and galleries involved are to be heartily congratulated. Go, revel in Ai’s latest, monumental version of Forever Bicycles and make up your own mind, but be sure you take someone with you. It’ll guarantee discussion for months to come.