Before visiting Andy Warhol – Ai Wei Wei, the NGV’s summer blockbuster exhibition, I didn’t have a clue why the work of the late Warhol and very-much-alive Wei Wei were mingling in Melbourne’s art gallery. As I worked my way through the exhibitions pace, parallels between the artists popped up, making them seem less like an odd couple and more like kindred spirits.
The exhibition zips through space and time, darting between New York and Beijing, and the 20th and 21st centuries. Andy Warhol’s work represents modernity during the 20th century, which is known as the “American Century”, mostly from his home in New York, with photographs from a brief fling with Beijing. Ai Wei Wei represents contemporary life in the 21st century, known as the “Chinese Century”, mostly from his home and studio on the outskirts of Beijing, although he includes work from when he lived in New York in the 80s.
Once I saw these parallels between the two artists, the joint exhibition made so much more sense. Each were leaders of the art world during their country’s respective century of peak power. Both represented and influenced life during their career. They even shared New York and Beijing. Warhol inspired Wei Wei, and they shared an admiration for French artist Marcel Duchamp, who they both reference in their work. When Ai Wei Wei arrived in New York City in 1983, the first English-language book he purchased was “The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again (1975).
Andy Warhol turned his eye to consumer culture, fame and the concept of celebrity and introduced the world to his notorious concept “fifteen minutes of fame,”. Ai Wei Wei focuses his work on the rights of the individual versus the state, freedom of speech and information and social activism, as well as being a prolific user of social media.
Good news for my U.S. readers, particularly those in the northeast – this exhibition will travel to the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh in June 2016!
My favourite room was the “flower power” room, which was decked out in flowery wallpaper, Warhol’s famous flower prints, a bed of thousands of porcelain flowers that Ai Wei Wei made, and the seemingly innocuous bicycle, with a basket filled with flowers. It looks like any other hipster bicycle that you’ll find dotted around Melbourne – whether for actual transport purposes or being used as a decorative cafe sign – but it was actually the bike stationed outside Ai Wei Wei’s studio while he was detained by the Chinese government. Every day, someone would fill the basket with fresh flowers and post the photo to his social media account.
I was also pretty partial to the “balloon rooms”, which were really narrow corridors filled with red and gold foil balloons, propelled by fans. You’re encouraged to immerse yourself in the sea of helium balloons, which zoom around the small space, leading Laura to joke that she was being “assaulted by art.”
I’ve seen Andy Warhol’s work a few times now, first at the blockbuster Warhol exhibition at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA) in 2009, and more recently I saw some of his work at MoMA in New York. They never get old! His portrait of Blondie lead singer Debbie Harry is one of my all time favourite images.
In the kids section ( #noshame), you can make your own Warhol-esque portraits!
The #Legogate Controversy
Controversy buzzed around the exhibition months before it opened, after Ai Wei Wei’s request for a bulk purchase of Lego was denied by the Danish toy company. They refused to fulfil his order because they didn’t want Lego to be associated with a political message. Their decision backfired, as thousands of people around the world began donating their own Lego at more than 20 collection points at museums around the world. Outside the NGV, an old white sedan purchased by the gallery was filled with Lego as children and adults alike dropped pre-loved Lego pieces through the sunroof.
By the time the Lego was collected, it was too late for it to be used in the large-scale installation, but the collected Lego has been sent to Ai Wei Wei’s factory in China and is currently being used in a new project. The “Letgo” installation room at the NGV has been built using knock-off Lego, made in China.
The installation is a room made of fake Lego, forming the walls, floor, ceiling, decorated with portraits and quotes from Australians who are making a stand for human rights. Famous faces included Australian of the Year and domestic violence advocate Rosie Batty, journalist Peter Greste, who was imprisoned in Egypt, and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.Why go?
The collaboration between Andy Warhol and Ai Wei Wei’s work makes for a conversation greater than the sum of their parts. It’s a great chance to view some of the work of one of America’s most iconic artists, and familiarise yourself with the work of China’s most influential contemporary artist.
It’s also just a lot of fun.
Andy Warhol – Ai Wei Wei runs at the NGV International (St Kilda Road, Southbank) until 24 April 2016.