For AW & AS.
WHAT IS AN AI WEIWEI?
A: It’s 360 children’s backpacks, or 28 tonnes of steel rebar or 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds — displayed as monuments of mourning.
A: It’s a particular type of news, inflated with media, attached with a visual hook and floated through the air that we breathe.
A: It’s a man shouting — from the bottom of a well or a pedestal. (A man who can cackle.)
After visiting the enormous and immersive exhibition at the NGV, Andy Warhol – Ai Weiwei (I keep seeing a “v” instead of a dash between the names), a friend said he was very impressed, and thought that Warhol was a giant, but wasn’t so sure about Ai. But maybe, I said, Warhol and Ai need different and separate frames around them. The most crucial aspecst of Ai’s work is impossible to experience in a static museum installation.
‘Is the art of Ai Weiwei any good?’ is an Old Art question. Contemporary Art no longer assumes any consensus as to the goal of art (eg, Beauty, Excellence, Permanence); the only measure is the artist’s intention. But still, all ambitious artists hope to change the way we see the world, and more, their secret hope is that they will inflect however minutely the way other artists will want to make art. Warhol succeeded. Does Ai?
WARHOL & AI: THE USES OF GLAMOUR AND FAME
Andy Warhol’s celebrity portraits are as iconic as Orthodox icons of Mary. In those antique gilded images, Mary and baby Jesus are emptied of psychology; they are distilled symbols of Mercy, Sorrow and Redemption, fetishistic receptacles of divine glamour.
Warhol ingeniously reversed portraiture. His famous subjects are not “portrayed” — denied psychology, they are there only to illustrate the idea of celebrity. Their faces are simplified and purified into masks, drained to blankness as fetishes of profane glamour.
By dint of his repetitive method — flattering and extreme linear reduction allied with colour chart brilliance — Warhol could extend this condition of glamour to just about anything: a car crash, an electric chair, Chairman Mao and, back then, anyone with $50,000 to spare.
Warhol’s aesthetic resulted in the smooth finish of high-end collectible commodities. A generation and a half later, Ai Weiwei’s aesthetics descend from modernist ugly-is-beauty to a post-modern disavowal of a signature style, while employing traditional craft resources and laborious methods. Ai has a tremendous interest in celebrity but none in glamour.
THE MEDIUM IS THE MEDIA
Warhol made the price tag on an artwork fashionable; he made money a more visible part of art than ever before — he painted the money symbol. Rich is Good. Artist have their fortes: with Leonardo, it was about manifesting mysteries. Matisse’s favourite move was ultra-sophistication disguised as naivety. Emily Kngwarreye made several new languages for brushes. Marina Abramovic confronts us with the physical politics of the body. Ai Weiwei’s stock in trade is provocation, and his medium is the media.
Warhol hid beneath the platinum wig of his fame, made his face blank and deflected attention back on the viewer: he makes us ask, why does this exotic person think we are interesting? Ai wields his fame like a spotlight onto his obsessions.
THE CAKE OF FAME AND EATING IT
Ai Wei Wei’s first gesture noticed around the world was his noisy boycott of the opening of the Beijing Olympics “Birds Nest” stadium which he “helped to conceive”. (It remains hard to say what part he played.) At that time he was a well-known artist in China, son of a famous poet. Ai decided he would be abetting Party propaganda to attend the opening festivities. As it is highly unlikely that Ai had not understood that right from the start, he managed to have his cake and eat it — co-designing the famous structure gave him a global reputation, and having acquired it he mounted the platform to fly a flag for freedom.
In that same Olympic year he began an investigation into the deaths of several thousand schoolchildren in a Sichuan earthquake, leading a citizen’s exposé. It worked: ‘The government’s unexpected announcement on May 5  that 5,335 students died in last year’s Sichuan earthquake appears to have been in response to efforts by Ai Weiwei and other Chinese activists to call the government into account for the deaths. This was the first official figure released…’
He made “The Snake Bag” which toured the world, a monumentally-scaled, intrinsically morbid artwork created from 360 children’s backpacks recovered from the ruins of the earthquake. Shortly after the announcement Ai became a person of interest and the subject of police surveillance. His outspoken blog was shutdown. Plainclothes police entered his mother’s home to interrogate her about Ai. He was arrested (the occasion of his famous twitter selfie with police in the elevator) and beaten up at the station, which later resulted leading to emergency brain surgery for a cerebral haemorrhage.
FREE AI WEIWEI
Eventually the official interest would escalate into his house arrest in 2010, and jail in 2011, at which point his fame was incandescent. In 2010 he had carpeted Tate Modern’s vast Turbine Hall with an improbable 100 million artisanal porcelain sunflower seeds. The Tate returned the favour the next year by broadcasting in enormous letters across its roofline: “RELEASE AI WEIWEI”. “WHERE IS AI WEIWEI” appeared on a gallery building in Berlin. “FREE AI WEIWEI” lit up across the roof of the Kunsthaus Bregenz in Austria. For a while “Free Ai Weiwei” street posters could be seen on the walls of city lanes in Melbourne and Sydney.
No longer just using the news, Ai became news, and that newsmaking was like a worldwide art happening with an unpredictable story line. His incarceration, continued persecution and passport confiscation were the unintended ways in which the Chinese state assisted Ai to become a performance artist beyond the wildest ambitions of Marina Abramovic. His theme was and remains the unimpeachable Enlightenment idea of human rights.
If so much contemporary art continues to deal with identity politics, Ai Weiwei took the next logical step to world politics. And only global fame, on a constant feedback, can provide that level of effect.
He bounces the news like a champion basketballer with a ball:
Lego refuses to allow Ai to use its products in an artwork. That story trends around the globe.
He outrages by posing as Kurdi, the drowned Syrian infant refugee.
He asks artworld celebrities to take selfies in thermal blankets like those used by refugees.
That provokes the German minister to call the A list photo-op “obscene“. That castigation furthers the news story.
SIMPLE AND IN-YOUR-FACE
Some of Ai’s best works are among the simplest — they are classics-to-be of conceptual art. Pointed, witty and edgy, they have a kind of breathtaking audacity that intellectuals and artists in repressive regimes sometimes display.
“Fuck Off”, his series of literally digital selfies, giving the finger to famous city landmarks, are postcolonial messages which shaft truth to power. (One feels an uncomfortable parochial buzz to see the Sydney Opera House included.)
Notoriously, he was videoed dropping a Han Dynasty urn (206BC-220AD). Not the first or last art critic to say so, the New Yorker‘s critic Peter Schjeldhal called it vandalism. The urn smashes, the viewer winces, the video loops. It is a tonic act of self-possessed fury that antiquities may be prized over the dispossessed. The idea has the visual simplicity to translate into a teatowel graphic.
In 2012, still unable to leave the country, Ai seized on the worldwide Korean pop hit, “Gangnam Style” and repurposed it as a parodic video of his imprisonment. His in-your-face impishness is a dissident’s dare, a banana finger to the 800 kg State gorilla. (One worries for him.)
Ai has had made objects/works of enormous scale, like the “Snake Bag”. Or “Straight”, a companion piece of 150 tons of steel rebar, the bones of the school salvaged from the earthquake site, straightened out of their crooked destruction. Or 14,000 life jackets from Lesbos wrapping the pillars of Berlin’s Konzerthaus. (How does he fund all these activities?) The artworks come after the news, and then sometimes continue making it news. They are modern monuments memorialising tragic events, and as structurally impermanent as news itself.
Warhol’s subversive conceptions — mashing crass commodifying with art purity, and anomie with style — had an incalculable effect on art making. Ai’s method is utterly current and on another spectrum — he uses any and every vehicle to drive a message; style is beside the point. The point, is the point.
The indefatigable Ai Weiwei is literally the most contemporary of artists — he takes the news of the day, attaches a visual hook and floats it through the air that we breathe. He makes us, however reluctantly or irritatedly, notice snippets of inconvenient news. But he does make us look, that first necessary act of encountering art in this most media saturated of eras. He tweets, he outrages, he goes too far — and makes us feel a rather more complicated response to his signalling than we want or expect to.
And if we stop to think about it, he meets us half way, he puts himself (sometimes bodily) on the line. He has said, ‘If my art has nothing to do with people’s pain and sorrow, what is “art” for?’ He wants us to Occupy the World. Ai Weiwei is not a cool art hero, he’s hot.