Ai Weiwei and Andy Warhol at the National Gallery of Victoria. Together they form an unmissable double act.
To quote ‘Big Kev’ McQuay, the late TV peddler of cleaning products, I’m excited! Because two of the most significant artists of the 20th and 21st centuries, Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei, are going head-to-silk-screened-head in a blockbuster international show that is being touted as the biggest the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) has ever staged.
Yes, Kev’s catchcry is commercially brash, but it befits an arranged ‘correspondence’ between two artists who have leveraged the language of multinational brands to fizz the likes of Coca Cola into fine art. “Once you ‘got’ Pop, you could never see a sign again the same way,” Warhol said of the art movement that emerged in the 1950s and felled all barriers between high and low culture. “And once you thought Pop, you could never see America the same way again.”
Revolutionising art away from its arcane heroics into a new cultural rubric, Warhol fetishised race riots, car crashes, suicide and celebrity with such glossy surface that all traumatic realism got lost in the soup — Campbell’s of course. He was arguably a cultural soothsayer who predicted the coming of the Kardashians (“In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes”); foreshadowed Facebook (dictating the mind-numbing minutiae of his every day to his assistant Pat Hackett for a decade); pre-empted Instagram (thousands of Polaroids prove it); and intuited the internet (“Human beings are born solitary, but everywhere they are in chains — daisy chains — of interactivity”).
Are they the words of an idiot savant or a prescient ‘wisdom’ that repeats and ratifies across Warhol/Ai Weiwei? The extraordinary exhibition covers the entire ground floor of the NGV, scoping the influence and intersections of the two cultural impresarios over 300 major works across five decades of warp-speed change.
According to Max Delany, senior curator, contemporary art, at the NGV, the exhibition evolved out of an existing relationship with The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh and the desire to drop a contemporary dialogue into its biographical chronology of Warhol works. Ai’s participation was entreated to map the congruencies between two of the modern era’s most influential practitioners — one emblematic of the American century (past), the other of the Chinese century (future) — and to place Warhol squarely on the pedestal of pallid genius.
“The pair hadn’t met, though Ai Weiwei did recall photographing Andy Warhol across a crowded room at a PS1 gallery opening in New York in the 1980s,” recalls Delany of the first discussions with Ai in his Beijing studio. “He was really excited by the prospect of a joint show, because it wasn’t an arranged marriage; the connection was already there.”
This connection could be argued as contextual (both artists suffered early exile from society), but Delany is more interested in their actual intersections. “It was during a period of Communist Party reform,” he says of Ai’s immigration to America in 1981. “He started hanging with the Chinese diaspora in New York and working as a house painter.
He was on the margin of the art world but, like Warhol, he lived around Union Square, orbited the same counter-cultural likes of beat poet Allen Ginsberg and started cultivating a self-conscious persona.”
Central to Ai’s nascent conceptual activism was a visit to the Strand bookshop in Manhattan, where he bought a copy of The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (from A to B & Back Again), Warhol’s inane musings on sex, fame and food. He started steeping himself in the ‘Duchampian’ ready-mades, self-portraiture, the Campbell’s soup cans and the serial recording of a social milieu, buying a camera for its febrile capture.
The impact of Warhol’s anodyne philosophy is enshrined in Ai’s photograph At the Museum of Modern Art (1987) — an analogue selfie taken in front of Warhol’s self-portrait, the posed pensiveness of which he mimics. “This is the moment of direct identification,” says Delany, running through the subsequent adjacencies of self-branding, social-networking, post-industrial modes of team production (The Factory for Warhol; Fake Cultural Development Ltd for Ai), political provocations and parodies on invention. “We’re not trying to ally their cultural conditions, rather their respective radicalisations of what an art practice can be.”
For the NGV exhibition, a suite of major Ai Weiwei commissions will be premiered, including a new installation from the 2003 Forever Bicycles series and a new monumental work from his 2002 Chandelier series. “It will be a rich show that sheds some light on the nature of society in the respective times,” says Delany of a blockbuster that concludes with a tribute to cats — Ai sharing his studio with up to 40, Warhol living with dozens, all called Sam. “Art, film, music, history, politics, social media… it will be an amazing immersive experience — a spectacle deserving of the two who forever transformed the role of the artist.”