Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei have been described as two of the most consequential artists of the 20th and early 21st centuries who have redefined the role and identity of the artist and transformed an understanding of art’s value in a contemporary age.
This exhibition is loaded with iconic works that have defined Warhol in the public imagination as the quintessential ‘Pop’ artist – the Marilyns, Jackies, Elvis, Soup Cans, Electric Chairs, Maos, Flowers and so on. The relative newcomer Ai Weiwei needs little introduction. He creates galvanising spectacles and events concerned with national or global social issues. Is this show a celebration of a generational changing of the avant garde – Warhol speaking for late 20th century modernity and Ai for 21st century contemporaneity? Not really. Think of it more as an intensely theatrical experience in which we, the audience, create our own pathways through a series of sets arranged around thematics including portraiture and self-representation, the ready made, the individual and the state. It is essentially about an intersection of two practices that share much common ground. Andy Warhol came to New York in 1949 and continued to work there until his death in 1987. Ai Weiwei, born in 1957 China, the son of exiled poet Ai Qing, came to the United States in 1981 and spent most of his time in New York before returning to China in 1993 and consolidating an international career dogged by ongoing conflict with Chinese state agencies. Warhol’s work is synonymous with what many imagine life in the Big Apple, particularly the alternative counter-culture 1960s scene, was all about – underground clubs/music/film, performance art/celebrities/drugs and so on. It’s doubtful if anyone would associate Ai’s best-known international works, such as his Sunflower Seeds, at the Tate Modern, 2010, with New York, or with Warhol for that matter. Yet the seeds of his art activism were sown by the experience of street life and gallery culture of New York. It has been said that Ai learnt from Duchamp how to shock, from Joseph Beuys how to promote a social event as a work of art and from Warhol how to make full use of social media, or turn media into a work of art. Like Warhol, Ai cultivated in his practice, the use of the camera to, on one level, record everyday places, events and people. The exhibition includes ‘photo walls’ of both artists’ voracious capture of life going on around them including Warhol’s famous ‘Polaroids’, which anticipated the selfie and Instagram. On another level, the significance of photography (and film/video) in both artists’ work can be seen as an expression of Warhol’s ‘I want to be a machine’ philosophy. Warhol, as in the filming of his iconic film Empire (the Empire State Building shot through the night) often preferred to step aside and let others ‘produce’ the work. To say that everything about the work in this exhibition is political could create barriers for viewers who simply want to get off on the popism. But that’s the underlying reality. Even early works – Warhol’s Brillo Boxes, Campbell’s Soup Cans and Coke Bottles exemplify a sardonic take on the blandishments of consumerism. To be able to experience the slightly tacky finish of such works is to edge closer to what the artist was actually saying about the ‘friction’ at the edge of capitalism – that moment when it is still possible to appreciate that supermarket goods (or cars for that matter) have a human dimension defined by the labour that made them possible. In the adjoining gallery Ai’s take on consumerism comes from an entirely different perspective of China’s problematic relationship with its past. Ai has made revolutionary China’s systemic destruction of much of its cultural history (on the basis of Mao’s ‘old = bad’ principle) a central plank of his practice. Here is the well-known Han Dynasty vase inscribed with the Coca Cola logo. Other Han vases in a large central display (a series begun in 2006) are disfigured by the application of industrial paint. Such objects, including constructions made from reconfigured ‘antique’ furniture, eloquently express the contradictions of China’s failed experiment to erase the (hand made/traditional) past while celebrating the economic benefits of mass production/consumerism. Human dignity takes a pounding but the spirit is undiminished in the room dedicated to the thematic of individual versus society. Here Warhol’s critique of America’s addiction to violence (e.g. Electric Chair series) and its reduction of humanist values to rhetorical wall paper slams up hard against Ai’s defiance in the face of totalitarian oppression. Don’t consider the viewing experience over until time spent in the ‘debrief/doco’ space at the exit with its Silver Factory crash out and think about options. The capacity of these two remarkable artists to stay on message – across a full range of media and strategies – about the exploitative or subversive power of imagery within contemporary society – defies casual engagement. Seeing this extraordinary exhibition is just a beginning. Is it still possible, as Ai believes, that ‘art can change the world’? Andy Warhol / Ai Weiwei National Gallery of Victoria Until Sunday, April 24 ngv.vic.gov.au Images: Ai Weiwei, Chinese 1957– At the Museum of Modern Art 1987 from the New York Photographs series 1983–93, silver gelatin photograph, Ai Weiwei Studio,New York. Licensed by Viscopy, Sydney. Ai Weiwei at National Gallery of Victoria exhibition Andy Warhol (detail) | Ai Weiwei, 11 December 2015 – 24 April 2016. Photo: John Gollings Andy Warhol in Tiananmen Square 1982, image: Christopher Makos 1982, makostudio.com Ai Weiwei, Chinese 1957–Neolithic Pottery with Coca Cola Logo, 2007, paint, Neolithic ceramic urn, 27.94 x 24.89 cm, Private collection, Image courtesy Ai Weiwei Studio