Saturday, January 23, 2016

The one that got Ai Weiwei

Blue Warhol with Marilyn (2013) by Pants

'My idea of a good picture is one that's in focus and of a famous person doing something unfamous.'

So said Andy Warhol back in 1979 in the bad old days before cameras could focus themselves. My idea of a good picture is one that ends up in the actual camera. There's a sad story to tell. Back in December I had a couple of days in Melbourne. I'd just been to lunch with one of my very specialist blog pals and exceptionally fine it was too. Niece Pants was due to meet up with me after lunch. En route to the meeting point, I received the obligatory text advising me that she would be late so I made my way to the National Gallery of Victoria to wait whilst she completed plaiting her eyebrows or whatever.

I was sitting at the rear of the NGV foyer on one of the soft vinyl furnishings provided, admiring Ai Weiwei's Forever Bicycles. As I pondered the impressive installation that dominates the space in a fashion that appears simultaneously spontaneous and meticulously calculated, a door to my right opened and out walked Ai Weiwei. The headline exhibition featuring his work alongside the work of his predecessor and mentor/muse-once-removed, the aforementioned Andy Warhol, was to open in a few days. Accompanying Ai Weiwei was a very tall woman in a pea-green dress. Around them, no one save a camera operator and assistant.

This is the hell of it. I'm between pocket cameras and I don't (yet) have one of those phones that everyone else has and I'm sort of deciding to get instead of a pocket camera, which I would have had and pulled out and, without even having to think, done as Warhol advised,

'Point, push down, and a lot, repeatedly.'

It was an opportunity too fortuitous to miss so I got out my dumb cereal-box phone, (which does, incidentally make excellent phone calls), set it to 'camera', pointed and pushed down. To my great surprise, the camera informed me that it was shooting a video. Well, I thought, what a hoot. I can post that. Who wouldn't want to see my queasy-cam footage, (minus the audio), instead of the national broadcaster's?

Sadly, the Pants purview is not available for comparative purposes. When Niece Pants finally arrived, long after the departure of Ai Weiwei, I asked her to help me find the footage and it had mysteriously disappeared. Niece Pants shot me a look that indicated she either thought I was pitching a porkie or, even worse, might require hospitalisation in a locked ward in the not-too-distant future.

So, I'm unable to embellish this post, which is (surprise, surprise!) about to feature the Andy Warhol/Ai Weiwei exhibition, with a piece of personal cinéma vérité. In lieu, I offer the one-I-made-earlier Kodakotype above. I hope you'll agree it's in keeping with both the ethics and practices of the two artists, if not exactly circle-squaring in serendipity.

In late December, I returned to the NGV and purchased my ticket to the wonderful world of AW2. I have learned to bring low expectations to exhibitions featuring world-renowned artists in Australian galleries. This is not only because of my highfalutin snobby ways. Australian galleries don't have the grand holdings of their European and American counterparts and it costs a lot in transport and insurance to bring valuable works to this country. What you get, (if you're lucky), are one or two of the great, well-known centrepiece works and lots of minor works, sketches, lithographs, diaries and objects - the workings of the artist's life. This version of an exhibition, if thoughtfully and imaginatively presented and curated, can be thrilling and illuminating - especially if you've been to all the great galleries and seen all the big pictures before.

The penny dropped for this hardy snob in 2011 with two extraordinary exhibitions. The first was The Mad Square: Modernity in German Art 1910-37, (NGV). I had seen a lot of German Expressionist painting but I had never even heard of the signature and centrepiece of this exhibition, Felix Nussbaum's The Mad Square (1931). This painting grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and screamed, 'don't forget me'. And I never have. I've been so haunted by it that I've spent some of the last four years since I saw it, making a painting of my own in its honour. The collages of Hannah Hoch, John Heartfield, Kurt Schwitters, the lithographs of Paul Klee, Ludwig Hirshfield Mack and El Lissitzky, drawings by Otto Dix, Georg Grosz and Max Beckman and photographs by August Sander and László Moholy-Nagy set before me a new kind of gallery experience. It was one that brought me several steps closer to the makers of this work than I had felt before and I liked it - a lot.

A month later, an exquisite array of minor works by Henri Matisse at the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) in Brisbane, convinced me that there is a whole range of delights in the unexpected and previously unimagined. An exhibition containing just one major painting, the complete 'Jazz' set and a whole pile of drawings and sketches could so easily have come across as an attempt to part the ignorant and art-starved from their cash. But that's not how it played out. I realised that I had seen a lot of Matisse over the years but I had never seen this version of Matisse.

The great paintings are enigmatic and wonderful to see but there are many filters between maker and viewer. Sketches and drawings bring you closer to the artist's thoughts. I've previously offered on this blog my definition of a work of art - it's the map of a thought. There is something magical about being allowed to witness the imperfections, the workings out, the human frailty and find a connection to creativity, unencumbered by decades or even centuries of gilded preciousness. Sketches and drawings offer a nearness and tangibility that famed framed paintings hung high just won't tolerate. I found myself believing, as Matisse himself freely admitted, that he really wasn't very good at drawing. There was something enormously comforting in that demystification. I imagine it's also not a bad way for children to meet art for the first time and it's certainly a lot easier to see the wood amongst the trees.

People rarely exit an exhibition in an Australian gallery complaining of sensory overload. Our curators have real expertise in making a lot out of a little. NGV has hit pay dirt with this combo because there is a lot of quality work to choose from. Andy Warhol's always being accused of being 'ahead of his time' and he certainly seems to have anticipated the stratospheric inflation in art prices and the affordability consequences to far-flung public galleries. He took the precaution of ensuring that there would always be enough Marilyns, Campbell's Soups and Brillo Boxes to go around. It's not too difficult to mount a credible retrospective of the works of the master of ubiquity, even in Australia. One of the most interesting things about Warhol was his fascination with the banal. Because of him, none of us will ever be able to view a tin or a box as just a tin or a box. The 'fad' that is Andy Warhol has endured for an awfully long time and that isn't because the banal is inherently fascinating; it's because it can be, in the eye of someone who finds it so.

Ai Weiwei inherited the Warhol eye and the 'factory' mentality, being every bit as prolific in output. On the face of it, a mix-match of their work seems like a slam-dunk. There's so much crossover in emblems, tropes, styles, methods, you name it. They never met and yet both of them were interested in almost everything and it would be easier to find the topics that engaged neither of them than to list the subjects that absorbed both. But I can think of a thousand ways it could have gone horribly wrong. For starters, as much as I love the NGV, it can be a rigid and difficult space to navigate. The problem is compounded here by the splitting of the exhibition into two separate areas, which means you have to cross the noisy foyer, find your ticket again and re-engage on the other side of the museum. Happily, it isn't a mood killer.

Would the embarrassment of riches flummox curators used to operating on the principle of  'less is more'? Apparently not. There's thoughtful juxtapositioning*, (sorry, couldn't resist), of categories. Coca-Cola, flowers, snapshots of famous people, posters, publications, cats. Ai Weiwei is just as wonderful as he appears to be. Never has there been an artist who can cause so much delicious trouble and always come out on top. Alison Klayman's film Never Sorry is profound on so many levels, but it enters Nirvana when Ai observes,

'I have forty cats but only one of them can open a door.' (Cut to cat effortlessly leaping onto door handle and exiting triumphantly.) 'but the cat will never close the door,' Ai concludes.

Ai is a cat who walks through doors and leaves them open. Warhol was that kind of cat. And he knew intimately the comedic capacity of the cat. The Cat Resembled My Uncle Pierre (1954), is charming, funny and knowing. There is always a cat who reminds us of our Uncle Pierre, and why we love our Uncle Pierre, despite his frankly catlike aloofness when it comes to his nieces and nephews. To suggest that Warhol anticipated LOLCats is probably fanciful. Plenty of artists before him found cats funny. It's just that when you look at all the subjects that interested him, it's astonishing how many of them turned out to be, well, you know, a bit totemic?

There's so much in this exhibition to smile about. Any artist who takes on the capitalist monster and beats it at its own game is a hero to me. As luck would have it, Ai Weiwei's battles with the Lego company have coincided with this show. The resulting capitulation by the company renders the Letgo Room, made from donated Lego bricks, a triumph. Ai has made this work specifically for the NGV. It champions individuals, in particular Australians, who fight for the rights of others, often at great personal cost. The small 'room' is neither spectacular nor reflective, and yet seems so necessary. It contains faces and statements, bare and bold, made from Lego bricks donated by children. I just know that every child who donated Lego to this project will one day feel proud. Ai has the gift of translating a stance into a symbol that is powerful, universal and beautiful without appearing self-consciously earnest or preachy. And he makes it look easy and obvious.

The sheer fabulousness of both Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei is that they transcend populism by embracing it to the point of strangulation. Combined, they're a potent reminder that the establishment can be destabilized and probably should be, regularly. Their individual and enduring popularity may be that they suggest that a child could do it and probably should consider it as a career. They open the realm of possibility to anyone and everyone.

Andy Warhol wrote,

'Some company recently was interested in buying my "aura." They didn't want my product. They kept saying, "We want your aura." I never figured out what they wanted. But they were willing to pay a lot for it. So then I thought that if somebody was willing to pay that much for my it, I should try to figure out what that it is.' (The Philosophy of Andy Warhol)

He figured it out. The 'it' is product. He found a way to market the 'it' as 'aura'. Warhol's version of artisan mass production blurred the lines of value. People who had never collected art before bought his work. Without Warhol, there would be no Banksy, no Damien Hirst, no Jeff Koons and Ai Weiwei would have been a very different artist. Despite my pathological distaste for shopping these days, I exited through the gift shop in a way I hadn't done for ages, hungry for a souvenir. The catalogue is a good buy at AUS$40. I also splashed out on two postcard collections at AUS$20 each.

Andy Warhol - Ai Weiwei exhibition is at the National Gallery of Victoria (Melbourne, Australia, World, Universe etc.) Finishes 24th April, 2016. Cost approx. AUS$20 - and is well worth it.

*please note that I have used neither 'whimsical' nor 'playful' in this piece. I believe that buys me some leeway. As you can imagine, the temptation bordered on heartbreak. My apologies for the 'profound' that slipped in there as well.