AI WEIWEIAt the Museum of Modern Art, 1987, from the “New York Photographs” series, 1983–93. Collection of Ai Weiwei. Copyright Ai Weiwei. Andy Warhol artwork: copyright the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc/ARS, New York, 2015. Licensed by Viscopy, Sydney.

ANDY WARHOLBrillo Soap Pads Box, 1964, silkscreen ink and house paint on plywood, 43.2 × 43.2 × 35.6 cm. The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; Founding Collection, Contribution: the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. Copyright the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc/ARS, New York, 2015. Licensed by Viscopy, Sydney.

Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei

National Gallery of Victoria
Australia China USA

The numbers and commentary surrounding National Gallery of Victoria’s (NGV) summer blockbuster, “Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei,” seem to confirm its popular success. It is an international sensation and for good reason, since it brings together the creative output of arguably two of the world’s most prominent visual artists—one modern, one contemporary.

Discussing the show with the museum’s outgoing curator of contemporary art, Max Delaney—on his penultimate day on the job, before he went on to helm the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, also in Melbourne—the significance of the curatorial venture became clear. It is a singular opportunity to compare and contrast the art of 20th-century innovator Andy Warhol (1928–1987) with that of present-day activist-artist Ai Weiwei. At every stage in the exhibition a dialogue is established between their works (although, since Warhol was unfamiliar with Ai’s practice, the conversation is a bit one-sided). These artists are shown to be similar and yet very different—having connections at every turn, both personal and conceptual—and to have shared aesthetic themes that speak of the ongoing transfer of ideas in art history.

The most palpable link between the two men is presented in a room showing snapshots of their respective adventures in New York City in the 1980s, as well as Warhol’s journey to Beijing in 1982. As Delaney notes, “the show is a tale of two cities.” Ai relocated from Beijing to New York at a time when Warhol’s razzmatazz permeated every aspect of the art world in the latter city. According to Delaney, “They orbited the same neighbourhood”—sharing certain acquaintances, but never quite meeting. In one small photograph among a multitude displayed on a wall at the NGV, a young Ai stands beside Warhol’s self-portrait and mimics his gesture. This image seems to be the thematic epicenter of the exhibition: a corporeal encounter between the two artists recorded in a photograph.

For both local and international visitors, the NGV show has two main draws. First, it provides the opportunity to see some of Warhol’s finest silkscreen paintings in the flesh, as the exhibition was conceived in partnership with The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, which loaned many of the pieces on display. These include: the sculptural Brillo Soap Pads Box (1964); Jackie (1964), a voyeuristic study of grief; the later “Myths” series (1981); his collection of Polaroids; several celebrity portraits; and a reconstructed music-video installation based on the artist’s collaboration with The Velvet Underground, entitled Exploding Plastic Inevitable (1966–67). These works are more saturated with mid-20th century glamour than an Old Fashioned at the mouth of Mad Men’s Don Draper.

The second drawcard for visitors is more immediately relevant, since it is still being written in the public eye. In the exhibition we find a synopsis of Ai’s politically-charged work from the last few decades. Included are examples of his great and glittering sculptures; his experiments with wood, marble, plastics and porcelain; and works citing his traumas at the hands of the Chinese government, as well as those celebrating his brazen rebuttals to the authorities’ sanctions. References to the pervasiveness of social media imbue his work with the feeling of “now.” However, he often uses historic materials in his art as well, such as the salvaged pieces of wood from destroyed Qing dynasty temples that make up Map of China (2008) and the Neolithic and Han dynasty vases that comprise his famously iconoclastic work Coloured Vases (2015), which consist of ancient ceramics collected by the artist, dipped in industrial paint.

Ai’s political activism takes on a local slant in this exhibition through the installation Letgo Room (2015), which uses millions of intricately assembled Lego blocks donated from the public to create portraits of Australian activists and human rights advocates such as Peter Greste, Rosie Batty and Julian Assange. While the whimsical tone imparted in the medium of the installation might initially seem clashing when contrasted with the gravity of the subject matter, the room is meant as a salute to universal activism and has been gifted to the NGV by Ai. Rather enjoyably, the installation makes an array of excellent creaking sounds when visitors walk through it.

AI WEIWEIColoured Vases, 2006, Neolithic vases (c. 5,000–3,000 BC) and industrial paint, dimensions variable. Copyright the artist. Courtesy Ai Weiwei Studio. 

Nevertheless, the exhibition is an impressive project for the gallery to have executed. With its bright colors, interactive balloon works, photo booths and top-notch family room “Studio Cats” —which provides a range of cat-themed activities for children, drawing upon both artists’ fondness for felines—“Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei” is a genuinely entertaining exhibition for a wide demographic of visitors. Yet, among the brightness and fun, the curators have also highlighted the darker elements of each artist’s oeuvre, in particular, their investigation of the real hazards involved in unchecked power of state. Warhol references this in his “Electric Chair” (1963–71) silkscreens—perhaps the most cryptic and engaging series of his career. With regard to Ai, struggles with state power and censorship are not only the subjects of his art, but also actual experiences of his life. Having had his passport confiscated by the Chinese government between 2011 and 2015, as a result of his political activism, the current show at the NGV provided the first opportunity in years for Ai to see some of his most famous works in an international setting. It is a sobering idea to consider when surrounded by the staged joviality of the exhibition, complete with foil balloons and the gleam of celebrity.

There is, however, one main difficulty in this show that should not be overlooked. With the admission ticket to “Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei,” visitors are gaining access to what seems like two separate exhibitions amalgamated into one. For that reason, the display provides an at times tangled story of the two artists’ respective careers. Without question, the exhibition establishes some interesting links between these nonconformist figures, who bridge the art practices of the East and West and the modern and contemporary. However, the parallels teased out in the curatorial narrative come across as strained and occasionally difficult to resolve. Perhaps it would have been better to present the show as a double-exhibition—available to view each in separate spaces, but still on the same ticket and at the same venue—as had been achieved to great effect at the NGV in 2012, with their Jeff Wall and Thomas Demand shows.

CHRISTOPHER MAKOSAndy Warhol in Tiananmen Square, 1982. Copyright Christopher Makos. 

“Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei” is on view at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, until April 24, 2016.