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 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