If I were to pick out one pattern in the five never-before-seen Ai Weiwei works on display at the NGV’s huge Warhol Weiwei show, it would be “multitude”. These new pieces comprise 1500 bicycles, three million plastic blocks, hundreds of porcelain flowers and thousands of reflective crystals, used for works about mass-production, mass communication and mass dissent.
To help me dissect the new works, I spoke to the NGV’s senior curator of contemporary art, Max Delany.
Chandelier with Restored Han Dynasty Lamps for the Emperor
The first thing visitors see when they arrive at the NGV, right behind the water wall, is a five-metre-high chandelier. Delany says it's based on the form of a Han dynasty lamp, originally found in an emperor’s tomb, and said to represent eternal life. “It’s composed of thousands of crystal prisms,” he says, “so it gives off spectacular refracting light against the water wall.” It’s a major new work in Ai’s Chandelier series, and it’s a brilliantly garish way to start the show.
Front and centre in Federation Court, Forever Bicycles is an elaborate structure built from about 1500 identical bikes, 15 metres wide and 10 metres tall. “When I was a child, no one taught me to ride a bicycle,” Weiwei said recently. “You just kept trying until you stopped falling off.”
The Forever Bicycle is made using a model that’s ubiquitous in China – and also one Ai himself coveted as a child – so this work is about presenting the ultimate individual mode of transport in a multitude, an endless nest of silver metal that looks different from all angles, creating what Delany calls a “perspectival rush”. It reflects Warhol’s use of repetition, and also the use of “readymade” objects as artworks, as pioneered by Warhol and Ai’s mutual hero, Marcel Duchamp.
Twitter Birds and Caonimas
In a direct response to Warhol’s Silver Clouds, floating metallic pillows that audiences are invited to bat around like balloons, Weiwei has made his own inflatable, interactive works.
First up, floating Twitter birds. Weiwei is a prodigious user of social media, and there’s something appropriate about the audience being allowed to interact with an artwork about Twitter.
The other new “cloud” floating around the gallery is the caonima, a fictitious Chinese animal with a hidden meaning. “The caonima is a breed of alpaca,” Delany explains. “It’s an animal used on the internet to express disapproval about government censorship online and restrictions of freedom of speech.” Cào nǐ mā (肏你妈) is also Mandarin for something very, very rude.
At the centre of a room focusing on flowers, Blossom is a five-by-five-metre bed of flowers made from fine, handmade porcelain from Jingdezhen, which has been a centre for porcelain production for hundreds of years.
Upstairs in the gallery’s Asian art collection, there are examples of porcelain items dating back centuries. Ai is carrying on that tradition and rendering something as transient as a flower in a timeless but delicate material.
“Flowers have appeared in Warhol’s work since his drawings in the 1950s, and they’ve been a recurring motif in Weiwei’s work as well,” Delany says. He also ties the new piece back to Ai’s 2013–2015 project With Flowers.
As a protest against his treatment at the hands of the Chinese government, which kept him under surveillance and withheld his passport, Ai put a fresh bunch of flowers in the basket of his bike, on the street for all to see, every day until he retained the right to travel.
The bike itself and a selection of photographs from the project are on display in the same room. But while Ai got his passport back, the daily struggle against the overbearing government continues for others. “For him, the porcelain flowers are a memorial for others who continue to live under those conditions,” Delany says. “Porcelain is a memorial object.”
Perhaps the most attention-grabbing piece in this exhibition has been Ai’s new Letgo Room. The room was originally meant to be constructed from Lego, but the company refused to fill Ai’s order, due to its concern about the political nature of the work.
The Lego room became the Letgo Room, constructed floor-to-ceiling from 3 million Lego-like plastic blocks fabricated in China. And it is overtly political: built into the walls, floor and ceiling are plastic portraits of civil-rights campaigners including lawyers, scholars, journalists and grassroots pot-stirrers, all people who would most certainly be considered persona non grata in China.
“It’s continuing a work he started last year in Alcatraz called Trace,” Delany says. “In that work, he made portraits of prisoners of conscience from all over the world.” This time, he’s focused on Australians, from Julian Assange to Rosie Batty. The effect is a multi-coloured world of playful dissent.
Andy Warhol / Ai Weiwei is showing at the National Gallery of Victoria until April 24, 2016.
Why is Ai Weiwei being paired with Andy Warhol? Read our feature here.