Measure it in inches: Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei

Warhol and Ai Weiwei: a match made in curatorship heaven. Not only was this pairing always going to be a big crowd pleaser, but it is also a rare chance to write history.  Although the cynic in me can imagine the dollar signs in the eyes of the curators when they began planning the exhibition (something Warhol would certainly approve of) but I can also appreciate the importance of such an exhibition art historically.

Warhol is an artist firmly cemented in the canon.  He was a tipping point, a pivotal artist in the transition between Modern and Contemporary Art, a revolutionary and an influence for many artists who followed in his wake.  Put simply he is a god.

Ai Weiwei is a Hero.  Part god, part mortal he walks among us.  We can meet him, take a selfie with him, follow him on Instagram, he has not yet joined the Gods in Olympus.  By placing Warhol and Weiwei together, by comparing them, highlighting their similarities, holding them on an equal playing field the curators are sending a very clear message, Ai Weiwei is ready to make his accent into the canon.

For an exhibition with two names in the title it is interesting that most people ask, “have you been to see the Weiwei exhibition yet?”  Certainly during the weeks leading up to the opening, Weiwei’s presence in Melbourne, and the Lego controversy helped to put Weiwei firmly in the social consciousness.  With his adept use of social media, Weiwei can reach huge audiences in such a way that Warhol could only have dreamed of within his lifetime.


I must confess that despite my own bias towards Warhol, it is Weiwei’s stunning installation Blossom, 2015, a breathtaking bed of pure white porcelain flowers, that is the stand out for me.  This work is not only visually stunning, but encompasses many of the elements of the exhibition.  It is political, a memorial to those who fight for freedom and human rights.  It comments on and questions art and its worth in society through the use of porcelain.  It connects to people, elicits a reaction which is democratic in its immediacy and universality.  It highlights his similarities and differences to Warhol. Plus it looks great in a selfie.

The immediacy and arguably impersonal nature of social media would certainly have had immense appeal for Warhol.  It is as though all his predictions for the future have come true.  Through advertising, magazines, television and film, Warhol saw how easily this could escalate to the point where everyone could have their 15 minutes of fame.  Only these days we don’t measure fame in inches as Warhol once did, instead we measure it in likes.  Not only is fame now within the grasp of anyone, art and fame can be truly democratic.  When we press “like” on Facebook, follow a blog, walk down a alleyway covered with street art, we are participating in the democratisation of a symbol which was once placed on a pedestal far out of reach.  Yes Warhol is a God, but he is in the fashion of a Greek God, flawed, human, within our grasp.  We see ourselves reflected in him.  He is our mirror. And, perhaps ironically, it is his very ability to lift art down from it’s pedestal that raised him up to such a height.

Ai Weiwei, Blossom, 2014 (installation detail, Alcatraz Hospital)

Ai Weiwei, Blossom, 2014 (installation detail, Alcatraz Hospital); photo: Jan Stürmann, courtesy FOR-SITE Foundation

Ai Weiwei is practicing in a world post-Warhol, the face of the world, and of our communications with each other has changed dramatically since the advent of the internet, and like Warhol, Weiwei knows exactly how to take advantage of this.  Questioning and referencing everything, he connects our present with the past, both politically and artistically.  In one work he will question the value of art by smashing a “priceless” vase, in another he creates a music video with all the trappings.  Warhol also drew on all of the avenues available to reach his audience.  Through music, film, magazines and advertising as well as through the gallery space, he accessed a wide and varied breadth of people.  And through this connected with them.  From street hustlers to art historians Warhol influenced, shocked, excited and awed.  And so Weiwei does today.

It is the aim of this exhibition to hold up Warhol and Weiwei to the light and compare them.  Scrutinising them it turns them both carefully in its hands, examines their similarities and differences, and declares them equals.  Crowd pleaser this may be, but it’s true worth lies in it’s ability to link these two artists in history.  But in this day and age, it is for us to make the final judgement.  And Warhol and Weiwei wouldn’t want it any other way.

Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei
National Gallery of Victoria
11 December 2015 – 24 April 2016


5 thoughts on “Measure it in inches: Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei

  1. I am not sure about WeiWei–he is a copy. Also his position in Chinese society makes me wonder about his ideals. Basically I think he is poser, to put it bluntly. Warhol isn’t a god but he sure thought of something new and came out of nothing. WeiWei enjoys all he has thanks to his family. If he were really outside the system China would have no problem arresting him and throwing him in prison for 25 years or so. HIs art, for me, is meh.


    1. What exactly did he copy with the project when he was collecting iron rods from collapsed buildings? What exactly did he copy with the act of breaking a Ming dynasty pot? No, those were innovative installations or gestures that represented clever (or different) thinking on a variety of issues… And 25 years or not, but he did a stint in a max security prison, when he was accompanied by two officers 24/7 in his tiny cubicle of a camera…


      1. It’s been done all of it. There is an artist–now dead who collected debris from New York buildings etc and build cathedrals. There is a man in Arizona who collected various pieces of cars and build himself a house, etc. More things have been smashed in the name of art–The Who are quite famous for smashing 100,000 guitars. There is a native American tribe in Washington state that has done it for a thousand years. DONE!! AND BETTER.Wendy-O had a very very famous thing she did with a TV. Check out the punk era that’s where it all started. 2 security guards in a prison–get real. Hve you been to China?? Have you run into he police? Everyone has a right to their opinion–give me mine. Or at the very least look at other art forms or other cultures before you say anything.


  2. I am glad that this pairing of Warhol and Ai Weiwei has brought out such opposing opinions, this is one of the aims of the exhibition, to create debate, to question the worth of the one artist against the other, and to allow us the opportunity to judge for ourselves. The democratisation of art, and the existence of public forums such as this, means that debates can take place in an open playing field where all opinions are valuable and contribute to an ongoing dialogue about art.

    It is my personal opinion that no artist is an island. I have rather a Post-Modernist approach to the idea of originality, everything has been done before, everything is influenced by those who came before them. Artists cannot exist in a bubble: social influences, world events, new technology, as well as world history and the history of art must play into every new work made. Saying this I do feel it’s important that artists are not purely derivative and that they endeavour to say something different through their own personal interpretation.

    Was it Pablo Picasso who said, “Good artists copy, great artists steal”?


    1. I am sorry if my reply made you feel I was denying your opinion.

      Speaking of previous smashings and turning discarded items into something else… I am aware of post-modernism, punk, and arte povere within the limits provided by two to three books on each of those and about a dozen visits to exhibitions that covered these “”isms”. Certainly, there are artworks that had escaped textbook coverage. For instance, I’ve never heard of The Who smashing all those guitars.

      I am not saying AW’s methods are new, it’s how and for what he uses them that is novel. Well, all painters use paint and brushes (or fingers), but it doesn’t mean that some of them can’t be innovative. The vase-smashing was, in fact, not about the vase, but mostly about AW’s unchanging face expression that was sending out the messages he intended (one of them being about China’s indifference to art destruction). I doubt The Who’s act was about keeping a straight face to communicate the alienation between the industrial world and guitar-making craft.

      In iron-rod collecting exercise it was not about turning rods into something entirely else, but in creating the devastated feeling of being present at a grave site, covered by the thick, impregnable blanket of relatively light, movable, man-made objects which – as a group, a part of buildings that they had been a part of – were responsible for the hundreds of deaths. In my view, this artistic objective was achieved with tremendous and rare emotional impact. Of course, other opinions are welcome, but I don’t really remember anyone creating a memorial that would both commemorate the dead, blame the authorities for their death and be transportable. Again, a similar work of art might have escaped me. And I am sorry I didn’t get your idea about China. I have never been to China, but I have read and seen AW’s work related to his prison term.


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