Everyone asks: why Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei? Together? Their works and philosophies seem antithetical: Warhol is the avatar of 20th-century American capitalism, the inventor of pop-cultural cool; Ai is today’s post-conceptual master of political protest, harassed by the Chinese government, incarcerated in 2011, denied his passport for four years.
Considering the scale of Andy Warhol / Ai Weiwei (until 24 April 2016), there seems to be plenty bridging the two artists. This unusually extensive exhibition combines the incomparable resources of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh and works by both artists from Australian collections. An international first, it’s a collaboration that stemmed from an original idea by Warhol Museum director and Asian art expert Eric Shiner, and has been guided in Melbourne by Max Delany, until recently the NGV’s contemporary art specialist. (The exhibition will be reincarnated at the Warhol in mid 2016.)
Warhol and Ai do have much in common: mass production vocabularies and materials; the studio as workshop, with Warhol’s Factory in New York and Ai’s FAKE Design studio in Beijing; a fascination for antiquities and collecting. Then there is the crucial matter of dissidence, however differently expressed. Warhol, a gay man when homosexuality was illegal in the US and repressed in American culture, was a perpetual outsider, committed to sly ambiguity. Today Ai constantly embarrasses the Chinese state. His outspoken blog, started in 2005, was famously shut down by the authorities in 2009; as recently as late December he published an op-ed piece in the New York Times, protesting the conviction of human-rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang.
Crucially, Warhol and Ai both work through modern mass communication. Especially photography, in all its forms. This is the key link, rather than their pre-eminent status as artists. From the late 1960s Warhol reached huge audiences with his magazine Interview, and tens of thousands more through films, videos and TV shows. He harnessed photography’s commercial vernaculars – advertising, photo booths, Polaroids – for images that ranged from indictments of American violence in the Electric Chair series to the celebrity portraits that were his bread and butter. And he defined a new darker American sensibility, more automat than apple pie. All this is registered effectively in the exhibition.
In this century, Ai’s blog and social-media accounts have been central to his practice. The internet has made Ai an international phenomenon, but he uses it as an artist. In 2009, he remarked, “The blog is like my drawing.” A compulsive diariser, Ai has taken hundreds of thousands of photographs. He used to post them on his blog; now he shares them incessantly on Instagram. (At the NGV, there’s a live feed from his account.) The man is a photo machine – and a devoted videographer. NGV visitors are mesmerised by Ai’s dogged documentaries and video logs of life in China; his ruthless exposure of the oppressive state, especially the wholesale loss of young lives in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake; even his terrible music videos.
Ai learned much from Warhol. New York brought them together. Well, nearly – there was no encounter while Ai was living there in the 1980s, only one distant glimpse. Ai is deferential to Warhol, saying at the media preview that he didn’t really need to meet him, he “was in the air”. An engrossing room in the exhibition is divided between Warhol’s and Ai’s photographs of New York and Beijing from the 1980s. (Warhol visited Beijing in 1982.) Warhol’s New York is celebrity heaven; Ai’s is Lower East Side poverty: artists’ digs, street demos, outsiders. Warhol’s Beijing is tourist cliché; Ai’s is embodied in a monumental wooden sculpture, a pillar from a demolished temple bisecting two antique half-tables – Chinese history literally skewered. Importantly, in the mid 1990s Ai introduced Warhol’s work into China when he published influential books about contemporary Western artists. And Ai always acknowledges his sense of connection to Warhol – obliquely in a 2009 interview, with the Warholian remark, “I like to use the most common objects.”
In Melbourne the exhibition title Andy Warhol / Ai Weiwei and the NGV’s promotional image underscore this indebtedness, this convergence: doubled initials – AW; two faces – Warhol’s eyes screened by sunglasses, Ai holding his own wide open. Early in the exhibition, three Warhol self-portraits face off with three famous photographs, rendered here in children’s plastic building blocks, of Ai dropping a Han dynasty urn. Parallels between the artists, or, better, resonances between the platforms they employ, continue to unfold.
In a first for the NGV International, the blockbuster exhibition spreads across the entire ground floor. The great entrance spaces house two flamboyant works by Ai, one of which is the latest iteration of Forever Bicycles. This enormous construction of around 1500 bicycles, once the symbol of Chinese aspiration, is a transcendent welcome gate formed from mundane turning. The galleries at the northern end of the ground floor continue the exhibition, with the final few devoted to films by and about each of the artists, and children’s and family activities. (Cats are the focus of the activities for children: Warhol and Ai both fell under the feline spell.)
There’s a healthy dose of didacticism in this well-crafted, beautifully paced exhibition, which pairs genres and topics, from readymades to Mao to the power of the state, across both artists’ oeuvres. It goes astray only when it strains too hard: the room devoted to ‘Narrative, Myth and Memory’, with an awkward combination of Warhol’s American popular-culture characters and Ai’s Chinese mythological animals, feels more programmatic rather than persuasive. Elsewhere, visual arguments demonstrate analogies, intersections, even divergences, between the artists. Take the ‘Flower Room’, where Ai’s political bite begins to show. Warhol’s 1970 Flowers are splendidly big and bold, but Ai’s With Flowers – images of the bunches of fresh flowers he placed daily in his bicycle pannier outside his studio, knowing he was under surveillance by authorities – embodies the telling gesture he excels at: it’s exactly like a meme. The exhibition’s one missing element, to my mind, is serious consideration of Ai’s architectural work from the 2008 Beijing Olympics onwards; as Ai said in Melbourne, architecture changed his career and his relationship to China, and got him “involved in society”. But then Warhol was no architect.
So is this a classic exercise in “compare and contrast”? Yes: Andy Warhol / Ai Weiwei shows shared aesthetic inclinations, exercised in different contexts. Warhol, the signature artist of the American century, grew up with abundance, so far inside capitalism that many critics – famously Robert Hughes, writing in the New York Review of Books in 1982 – could not stomach his work. Ai, the ungrateful child of communism, came to maturity during China’s destructive Cultural Revolution (1966–76), his family exiled to a remote region of the country because his father was a poet and intellectual. Now, in the Chinese century, Ai is possibly the world’s most celebrated contemporary artist. The continuities – across times, countries and traditions – are what make this exhibition truly compelling. This is the key revelation. Above all, Warhol and Ai are compulsive communicators.
Warhol, alive to the multiple significances of industrial replication and mass audiences, was the first leading artist to explore emerging communications platforms from the 1960s. He took art away from the individual studio, out into the postmodern city. Ai’s use of CCTV videos and digital platforms shows how communications have developed in the three decades since Warhol died. If everyone is fascinated with what Ai is doing, it’s because Warhol took art into the communications space. Now both artists are brand names. It’s symbiotic: their prodigious energies have fed the hungry media beast, which gives back handsomely.
Warhol and Ai make broad cultural gestures and interventions rather than individual works; they are more cultural impresarios than artists. And there lies both the force, and the deficiency, of their work. This has not gone unnoticed: the subtitle of a 2013 article by the American critic Jed Perl was ‘Ai Weiwei: Wonderful dissident, terrible artist’. That is often true. The US-based scholar Gao Minglu put it perfectly in the exhibition catalogue: “Ai plays a game with the whole system, both political and artistic.” He’s right, and the stakes are high: Ai risks his artist status constantly, and, with it, his influence.
At the moment, though, Ai is an international superstar. He was greeted in Melbourne as a champion of free speech, human rights and artistic independence. Certainly Ai uses his fame, in part conferred by an unwitting Chinese government, to seek justice. One young artist grumbled that the entire Australian east coast has been overrun this summer by artist celebrities taking selfies, but “at least Ai Weiwei has something to say”. Indeed. But not always successfully. I might be in a minority for not admiring Letgo Room, the small temple with collaged portraits of Australian political campaigners from Gary Foley to Rosie Batty, made with Chinese copies of Lego after the Danish company famously refused to supply Ai for his “political purposes”. Much as I value Ai’s subjects, their work and his sentiments – “these people are heroes of our time” – oppositional artists work best when stinging the rump of the behemoth, rather than working inside it.
Andy Warhol / Ai Weiwei is a rich brew, highlighting important contemporary issues through the prism of the artists’ works: the impact of mass communication, and how, for better and for worse, contemporary consciousness is now shared instantaneously, globally and interactively. Andy Warhol would have been pleased, I think … maybe a little bit jealous, but pleased all the same. Ai Weiwei was positively purring.
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