Ai Weiwei Blossom (on plinth); Andy Warhol Flowers (Hand Coloured) 1974 (on wall)

The realisation that it’s the last weekend of the exhibition Andy Warhol -Ai Weiwei at the National Gallery of Victoria has brought me back to this blog that I’ve sadly neglected for months.

My first instinct was to search for flights so that I could return for a second visit in this eye-opening exhibition. But reality strikes and perhaps writing about it (as I should have done when I visited it in mid-February) would bring back some of the powerful reactions I had to the exhibition at the time.

Several things remain vivid in my mind’s eye.

First, it is possible to have both quality and quantity. Both Ai Weiwei and Andy Warhol were prodigious artists. Yes, they may have had assistants, technicians, but the ideas abound, and they both conceived and realised them. Even if this exhibition was the sum total of their life’s work – and it ain’t by a long shot – they’ve done a shitload. And yes, Ai Weiwei came out on top for me in so many ways – ideas, technique, political courage, determination, media use, expression, form – but Andy Warhol was certainly not the dilettante wanker I’d always thought him. Far from it.

From the moment I walked in past the Ai Weiwei Chandelier and underneath the 1500 stainless steel frames of Forever bicycles I was there.

But, I feel as though I only skimmed the surface in my one visit. I like to visit any exhibition of substance at least twice: the first visit is a reconnoitre and the second an immersion.

As a complete package, I found it hard to ‘get’ let alone describe. Too much to process. So let me talk about the two elements that still occupy my thoughts: the flower room and the Letgo Room.

In the centre of the ‘flower room’ is Blossom 2015, “a spectacular installation in the form of a large bed of thousands of delicate, intricately designed white porcelain flowers” (NGV label). The labels don’t give dimensions but it must be at least 3 metres square. I just can’t imagine the technical skill to produce such a substantial yet delicate work but they clearly have it in Jingdezhen.

Ai also used flowers to make political statements when his passport was confiscated and travel rights restricted. Each day from some time in 2013 to July 2015, the artist placed a bouquet of fresh flowers in the basket of a bicycle outside his studio, watched by surveillance cameras. With Flowers shows date stamped photos of the bouquets.

Ai Weiwei With Flowers 2013-15

Three million plastic building blocks make Ai Weiwei’s Letgo Room. Inside and out the white wall is impregnated with portraits of Australian activists for human rights and free speech, each accompanied by a one-line statement by that person on their philosophy.

The room said so much in writing but it was the creaky noise we made walking on the floor blocks that added such a sense of fragility and tension, the rubbing up against immobility that is the lot of the community activist. Unbelievably moving and powerful.

If you’re in Melbourne, lucky you. You’ve still got two days to go.



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