Warhol x Weiwei: Cultural reflectors of their times

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Published:  December 15, 2015
Tara Watson

In one of the most anticipated collaborations in the National Gallery of Victoria’s (NGV) history, a curious pairing between the pioneering force behind pop art and one of the great contemporary political art activists are coming together for the very first time.

Exploring the artists game-changing works across the 20th and 21st centuries, Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei showcase over 300 works at the NGV until 24 April 2016, before the exhibition travels to the Andy Warhol Museum (AWM) in Pittsburgh, United States.


Andy Warhol Factory Portrait, New York 1963

Andy Warhol Factory Portrait, New York 1963

Drawn largely from the AWM, the exhibition includes some of Warhol’s most prolific works, including portraits of many famous faces such as Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy, as well as his renowned representations of Campbell’s soup cans and Brillo boxes.

Ai Weiwei 2012

Ai Weiwei 2012

Grouped thematically with Warhol’s pieces are over 120 works by Ai spanning his career from his early drawings in the 1970s and ready-mades of the 1980s, to his painting, sculpture and photography of the 1990s and 2000s. New and recent installations featured include Circle of Animals (in Gold) 2010Letgo Room 2015 and Forever Bicycles, a nine meter work comprised of 1500 bicycle frames that you will not miss as you enter the NGV.

The exhibition is a perfect pairing, with curators often taking a literal stance in highlighting the complimentary work and similarities between the two art greats i.e grouped by themes such as ‘Flowers’, ‘Celebrities’, ‘Sculpture’ and ‘Film’ – which make the collaboration a unique artistic duality to be witnessed.

Ai says that the two artists share a drive to express themselves forcefully in the contemporary moment. ‘If you look at the way he [Warhol] does his art, he has a strong message or image or content,’ Ai said of Warhol.

In many ways Ai was inspired by Warhol’s legacy. When the Chinese artist first moved to New York in 1981 The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B & Back Again) was the first book he purchased. ‘Today it would fit right into Twitter,’ said Weiwei in reference to Warhol’s quote-filled text.

Brillo Soap Pads Box 1964

Brillo Soap Pads Box 1964

Neolithic Pottery with Coca Cola Logo 2007

Neolithic Pottery with Coca Cola Logo 2007

Ai speaks directly to his audience through social media. He is an avid Twitter and Instagram user; a direct channel of communication he said would have been Warhol’s ultimate dream.

The artists share a conceptual approach in giving iconography subverted meaning such as the Campbell Soup Can series, or questioning the significance behind items bestowed with a given meaning such as 1995’s Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn.

A fascination with photography and film, had both redefining the role of the artist, often representing themselves on camera. Ai’s Study of Perspective series amplified the position of artist within art.

The space their art was created within took on a life of their own. Warhol’s the ‘Factory’ – his New York City studio – became legendary as a hotbed for bringing together artists and poets, socialites, film-makers, musicians, intellectuals and drag queens.

Some significant figures that were regulars at the factory include Liza Minneli, Edie Sedgwick and Debbie Harry. The factory was used as a space for Warhol to create his  serial-production of silkscreen paintings, films and music.

The large Beijing studio of Ai’s was where he carried out his post-industrial modes of production, engaged with collaborators and strategised his communications and social media.

Another studio of Ai’s in Shanghai became notorious for its un-timed demise, after the Chinese police in 2010 placed Ai under house arrest while the planned party marked the demolition of his studio by orders of the government.

Electric Chair 1967

Electric Chair 1967

Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China 1995 from the Study of Perspective series 1995–2011

Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China 1995
from the Study of Perspective series 1995–2011

The artists reflect the world around them through their own eyes. Their art acts as historical markers, a reflection of their own history through their time- both personally and culturally.

A timeline of American history can be seen within Warhol’s screen-prints. Prints of the electric chair featured in the exhibition which was becoming a controversial execution method, his other works reflect America’s cultures exploitation the celebrity (Jackie 1964) and consumerism and even the toll of car crashes and the media’s fascination with death in his work in Orange Car Crash Fourteen Times 1963.

While Ai also featured the toll that the emergence of the car boom has had on the shift between China’s mode of transport from bikes in Forever Bicycle. Ai used art as a campaigning platform in the aftermath 2008 Sichuan earthquake, critical in the governments handling of the disaster. Ai’s works unapologetically tackled China’s communist history and human rights abuses.

‘It’s a different kind of politics, but if work has any meaning, any aesthetic value, it has to be political,’ Ai said of Warhol’s work in a recent article. He said he respected Warhol as an artist and found him equally as political in his actions.

The key difference between the two however is that Ai actively involved himself in the political digression of his homeland. Ai was even detained in 2011 by the Chinese authorities and released after 81 days in jail, after which his passport was withheld and returned it to him four years later. He is regularly followed by Chinese officials and even speculated that his studio has been bugged.

Many of Ai’s followers say he does the work the government should be doing.

While Warhol  always remained a spectator, he was known in public for his apolitical and often detached stance; instead letting his art speak for itself.


Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei
11 December 2015 – 24 April 2016
NGV International
180 St Kilda Rd, Melbourne
Open daily 10am-5pm

For more information on the exhibition, click here.

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