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The exhibition “Andy Warhol Ai Weiwei,” currently on view at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), presents a comprehensive body of work by two of the 20th and 21st centuries’ most influential artists. The show includes over 300 works comprised of paintings, sculpture, photography, film, publishing, and social media in addition to immersive installations. Curator of Contemporary Art at the NGV Jane Devery described the formation of the exhibition as “the result of a close collaboration between the NGV, the Andy Warhol Museum, and Ai Weiwei and his team at his Beijing studio. The NGV made several trips to Beijing over a period of two years to realize the exhibition including producing several new works that were commissioned especially for the occasion.”
Upon entering the museum, visitors are immediately confronted with one of the new commissions, Forever bicycles (2015), which includes 1500 bicycles stacked in an optically dizzying wall formation. As the predominant form of transportation in China, bikes are a recurrent motif in Ai’s work allowing him to explore the possibilities of readymades and Warholian repetition. However, the stagnantly stacked bicycles call into question the rate of social progression. The structure foreshadows the scale and themes of exhibition’s subsequent works.
Issues of cultural and national identity, freedom of expression, and iconoclasm come to the fore throughout the exhibition, with both artists producing works that subtly—and not so subtly—convey their political ideologies. One such gallery that explores the tension between politics and the cult of the celebrity includes Warhol’s iconic screen-print portraiture of artists, politicians, film stars, and socialites alongside Ai Weiwei’s pop renditions of Mao. When speaking with Devery, she described Warhol and Ai as “remarkable for the ways they have respectively redefined the role and identity of the artist in society. Many of Ai’s works are centered on human rights, directly relating to his activities as a social activist.” In fact, it is the special commission piece Letgo Room (2015) positioned centrally within the space that gives this particular gallery an immediate sense of cultural proximity. Letgo Room features portraits of and quotes by Australian figures such as Debbie Kilroy, Julian Assange, Gary Foley, and Diane Otto that advocate for freedom of speech and information. Letgo Room, in conjunction with the surrounding works such as Andy Warhol’s portrait series of Jacqueline Kennedy Jackie (1964) and Ai Weiwei’s triple portrait Mao (1985) not only re-contextualizes prior epochs’ multinational political leaders into the contemporary moment, but pushes us to contemplate our role and social influence as globalizing audiences.
The exhibition also explores similarities that run through both artists’ oeuvre. Their Duchampian inspired readymades featuring brands such as Coca-Cola, Aboslut Vodka, and Campbell’s Soup speak to Warhol’s and Ai’s interest in mass production and cultural iconography. Additionally, both artists use an interdisciplinary studio approach to production, including multiple artists and collaborators. However, Warhol’s Silver Factory operated along a Fordist method of serial production, while Ai’s studio brings in a broader scope of social and political engagement through information technologies and the social media sphere.
Where the exhibition really shines is in its ability to take two prolific artists addressing an expanse of overlapping themes, and allow Warhol and Ai to maintain their respective idiosyncrasies. As artists representing two very different geographical regions and time periods, the works within the thematic galleries address their particular cultural stances. For instance, flowers come to be an important symbol for both artists. Warhol’s use of flowers coincides with the 1970’s Flower Power movement, and also function as a critique of commercialism and mechanical reproduction in his silkscreens. Ai uses flowers for their Chinese symbolism of ideal beauty, social status, wealth, and enlightenment. Blossom (2015) is Ai’s work composed of thousands of flowers made in the tradition of Chinese porcelain production. When placed in conversation with one another, the works point to the differences within the thematic subject matter.
Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei exist beyond the confines of gallery walls; they are socially engaged personalities whose art challenges the cultural standards of their respective contemporary moments. The exhibition at the NGV seamlessly places the artists in dialogue with one another, proving that combining two exemplary modern and contemporary artists results in a complete tour de force.
“Andy Warhol Ai Weiwei” is on view at the NGV International through April 24; it will then move to The Warhol Museum where it will be on view from June 4—August 28, 2016.