If Andy Warhol had the soup can, then Ai Weiwei has the bicycle.
And it is an overwhelming pile of bicycles, almost 1,500 of them piled more than 30 feet high, that unbolts the exhibition “Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei,” that opened at Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria (NGV). Through more than 300 works, including major commissions like the tower of bicycles, immersive installations and a wide representation of media including, of course, social media (Ai’s weapon of choice), the show explores pop culture and what we call “our time” beyond the domain of art.
It also considers the connections between Warhol, the enigmatic pop artist of the 20th century, and Ai, a Chinese artist and activist known for his work challenging the Chinese regime. “[Warhol] is the first artist I felt that I could completely understand,” says Ai. He adds that Warhol was possibly 50 years ahead of his time and describes him to be “extremely sincere and at the same time never sincere, like a person that virtually exists.”
“The exhibition allows us to explore the works of both artists in dialogue and correspondence,” says Max Delany, senior curator of Contemporary Art at the NGV. For Delany, this relationship is encapsulated by a self-portrait by Ai taken in New York at the Museum of Modern Art in 1987, the year of Warhol’s death. Ai, still a young artists in his 20s, is standing in front of a self-portrait Warhol made of himself in 1966.
But the rest of the relationship between the artists, who never met, is much less on the nose. There are thematic connections as well. The exhibit also considers the relationship between tradition and modernity, the role of individual and the state, questions of human rights and the big question of freedom of expression. Andy Warhol tapped into these ruminations by looking at how we internalize mass consumption (be it physical or virtual) and popular; Ai today infuses his work with similar sentiments. Like Warhol before him, Ai uses that svelte cross-disciplinary approach and thus explores various modes of production – with the Internet and all its tentacles speaking loudest.
For this show in Melbourne, in a welcome change of circumstance, Ai will be present. The artist has missed many of his large-scale exhibitions due to restrictions on his travel; with this show being one of the two-dozen that he has actually been able to see. The artist, often under scrutiny by the Chinese government, was under house arrest in 2010 for almost two months. Shortly after that, under investigation for alleged economic crimes, he was arrested and held for 81 days without any official charges filed. “I am grateful for what the authorities have done for me in some way, I now have no excuse to miss a show,” says Ai.
And as the artist has traveled so have his bicycles, since the series began in 2003. In addition to the installation in Melbourne, Ai’s towering bicycles are currently installed outside London’s Gherkin building. The title of the work, “Forever Bicycle,” refers to a brand of bicycles, Forever, that have been mass manufactured in Shanghai, China, since 1940, but have become rare on the city’s streets. Similar to Warhol and his famous Campbell soup cans, Ai is toying with the idea of a “found object” turned into something else. “Growing up in China, the bicycle was a major vehicle for people and a status symbol - even though it wasn’t as glamorous as owning a BMW,” says Ai.
“Warhol and Weiwei critique their immediate environs, hitting on topics as diverse as consumer culture, celebrity and art history to reshape and revise the way we understand our world,” says Eric Shiner, director at the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh and co-curator on the exhibition. He believes that both artists owe a great deal to Marcel Duchamp, the French conceptual artist, who opened the door to what art can and should be through his famous readymades.
“Pop art was and always will be art that mirrors the world of popular culture from which it emerges and which it helps to define,” says Shiner. “Important art is challenging and forces one to think. It might promote social justice and equality, just as it may seek to deconstruct notions of power and privilege,” says Shiner.
Warhol was a fanatical chronicler of his time (through film, photography, audiotapes and publishing) and his portraits of celebrities and video diaries are perhaps the early onset of social media. “Warhol was keenly aware of the significance of fame and celebrity, and cultivated his own persona to forge new social realities,” says Delany.
Ai Weiwei is expressing the world, right now, with his online activism, which includes Twitter, Instagram, viral videos, satirical memes and Weibo (the biggest social network in China), as his weapon of choice. He has demanded justice when dilapidated schools collapsed in a Sichuan earthquake killing thousands of children, critiqued the Beijing Olympics by calling it “propaganda,” commented on “internet freedom” and given the Chinese government numerous photos of his middle finger.
The revolution, according to Ai, could be lit up any moment you touch the keyboard. And so this is where he sees his power. For him, the very idea that a nation would shut down a website because he was having too much fun is powerful – which ultimately led to the arrest in 2011. “Jail didn’t change me in principle, but changed the way I behave,” says Ai. “Jail is like being dropped into the bottom of the ocean. When you cannot hear your voice, there’s an illusion that you don’t have your voice.”
And so as much as the 20th century was shaped by America, the 21st century is dubbed, as “the Chinese century” meaning artists like Ai with his politically charged work and activism is where the “jasmine revolution,” an intensive campaign of civil resistance that started in Tunisia and spread to China in 2011 with public protests, will pick up the baton and keep sprinting. “Warhol is probably jealous that he’s not here right now,” says Ai.
"Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei" runs at the National Gallery of Victoria from December 11, 2015 through April 24, 2016 before moving to the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, where it will be on show from June through August.