The National Gallery of Victoria’s summer blockbuster sets two art giants of the 20th and 21st centuries in dialogue, casting new light on their influence on co
Andy Warhol (1928-1987) depicted and defined the character of 20th century New York. Ai Weiwei (born 1957) champions freedom of expression while casting a sharp eye on contemporary Beijing. Both artists challenge and transform the idea of the role of the artist as provocateur, activist and cultural producer.
Andy Warhol/Ai Weiwei is far from a straightforward retrospective of Warhol’s legacy and Ai’s responses to his antecedent. It’s a living thing: a conversation that explores the parallels and points of departure of the two artists’ philosophies and practices. Sprawling across the entire first floor of the NGV, the double bill is the gallery’s largest-ever international exhibition, comprising more than 300 works by Warhol, 120 by Ai as well as some new commissions completed by the Beijing artist especially for the exhibition.
“The idea of the show was always to show both artists’ work in dialogue and correspondence,” says Max Delany, senior contemporary curator at NGV. The exhibition grew out a series of fortuitous connections: Ai credits the Queensland Art GalleryIGallery of Modern Art as one of his first major international supporters, and in 2007, the gallery’s then-director Tony Ellwood curated a major Warhol exhibition, working closely with the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. Several years ago, Ellwood, who is now at the helm of the NGV, picked up the conversation again with the Pittsburgh institution: this time with something different in mind.
For Ai, the chance to exhibit his work in conversation with key Warhol pieces was too good to pass up. In fact, the Chinese provocateur would be the first to admit he owes the American pop artist a huge debt. “I went to Ai Weiwei’s studio in Beijing in late 2013 to propose the exhibition to him,” says Delany. “It was something that he really responded to because, for him, Warhol’s a very important figure whose work really inspired him from the outset.”
On entering the exhibition, one of the first pieces visitors will encounter is Ai’s immense new nine-metre high, 16-metre-wide installation made from 1,500 bicycles. “The bicycles for me have a very strong relationship to Warhol’s ‘Silver Clouds,’” says Delany, referring to Warhol’s 1966 dynamic floating installation, also on display in the exhibition. “I think that’s a real dialogue... the bicycles have the kind of sense of social space and the kind of spectacle character.”
From there, the exhibition takes a thematic approach. There are rooms dedicated to both artists’ use of readymade objects. Warhol’s ‘Brillo Soap Pads Box’ (1964) will be exhibited next to Ai’s cube-shaped ‘Ton of Tea’ (2006). Several prints from the ‘Campbell’s Soup Can II’ series (1969) are shown alongside Ai’s ‘Coloured Vases’, Ai’s ongoing project which sees the artist plunging Han and Neolithic vases into tubs of industrial paint. “Ai Weiwei’s painted pots are very much about the obliteration of cultural heritage under the cultural revolution. But also, giving these pots a new glaze is a bit like giving these pots a new beginning. And so we’ll see the soup cans and pots, these cultural vessels, in dialogue.”
Further into the exhibition, visitors will find themselves face-to-face with reams of Warhol’s famous celebrity polaroids – among them John Lennon, Dolly Parton and Grace Jones. “Polaroids were Instagram before their time,” says Delany. “Ai Weiwei picks up on Warhol’s incessant documentation of everyday life, and when he was in New York between ’83 and ’93, he took over 10,000 photographs, documenting his contexts with the sot of diaspora of Chinese intelligentsia and musicians he used to hang around with.”
Today, social media is Ai’s most powerful tool of political activism. One of the artist’s new pieces – a LEGO-based installation that will represent Australian activists, advocates and champions of free speech – has created a controversy that has extended far beyond the in-the-know art world. In October, the Danish toy company refused to sell any bricks to Ai, on the basis that it could not approve the use of LEGO for political works. Through Instagram, Ai decried the response as “an act of censorship and discrimination”, and soon galleries all over the world (including the NGV) became inundated with LEGO donations.
“What this means is that his work does engage the wider public imagination,” says Delany. “Ai Weiwei’s been a blogger since the mid-2000s and he’s very active on Instagram and Twitter, and by doing so he’s able to activate a kind of global community and a kind of new social space. We think that’s really exciting.”
Gallery image credits
1. Andy Warhol. You're in 1967. Spray paint on glass bottles in printed wooden crate. The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; Founding Collection, Contribution The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. © 2015 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./ARS, New York. Licensed by Viscopy, Sydney.
2. Gao Yuan. Ai Weiwei 2012. © Gao Yuan.
3. Christopher Makos. Andy Warhol in Tiananmen Square 1982. © Christopher Makos 1982, makostudio.com.
4. Andy Warhol. Electric chair 1967. Synthetic polymer paint screenprinted onto canvas. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. Purchased 1977. © 2015 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./ARS, New York. Licensed by Viscopy, Sydney.
5. Ai Weiwei. Forever bicycles 2011. Installation view at Taipei Fine Arts Museum 2011 Image courtesy Ai Weiwei studio. © Ai Weiwei.
6. Gao Yuan. Ai Weiwei 2009. Image courtesy of Ai Weiwei studio. © Gao Yuan.
7. Ai Weiwei. S.A.C.R.E.D. 2011–13 (detail). Image courtesy Ai Weiwei studio. © Ai Weiwei.
8. The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, Exploding Plastic Inevitable (EPI) gallery. © Abby Warhol.
9. Ai Weiwei. At the Museum of Modern Art 1987. From the New York Photographs series 1983–93 Collection of Ai Weiwei. © Ai Weiwei; Andy Warhol artwork © 2015 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./ARS, New York. Licensed by Viscopy, Sydney.
10. Ai Weiwei. Coloured vases 2006. Neolithic vases (5000-3000 BC) and industrial paint dimensions variable. Image courtesy of Ai Weiwei studio. © Ai Weiwei.
11. Ai Weiwei. Han Dynasty urn with Coca Cola logo (silver) 2007. Paint, Neolithic ceramic urn. Private collection, Image courtesy Ai Weiwei studio. © Ai Weiwei.
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