18 January 2016

Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei at National Gallery Victoria

Words/Images (35mm film): Saskia Edwards

There’s something kind of overwhelming about being in the presence of great artwork – that pangs you in the sternum and shortens your breath. You know that you’re looking at something that some exceptional person, who really sees things, created. That’s certainly true of Ai Weiwei and Andy Warhol at the National Gallery of Victoria. In a way, it’s oppressive because you want to absorb it and appreciate it all.

However, this is probably truer of Ai Weiwei’s works. Of course, Andy Warhol’s commentary on consumerism is strengthened by the fact that his own works were mass produced. But once you’ve seen his same pieces three, four, five times, it doesn’t feel very interesting. It’s kind of like taking a photo in front of the Eiffel Tower. In comparison, Ai Weiwei’s skill and aesthetic is much more intriguing. Plus it’s imbued with the political activism that Weiwei is known for. Overall, Weiwei’s works are much more dynamic and compel contemplation in a way that Warhol’s no longer do.

Throughout the exhibition, it’s hard not to question why these two artists were put together.  There are seemingly obvious, but meaningless, links – both artists look at Mao, flowers or mug shots. There doesn’t really feel like a point to the pairing. Sometimes it’s interesting to see the contrast between their treatments of a subject. However, I don’t think either artist enhanced each other.

What I think I took away from the exhibition was a greater appreciation for Weiwei. You really get the sense that he’s a great artist. His work shows his broad range of interests (sculpture, photography, painting), his clever approach and his cunning examination of China’s politics and culture. But more than that, he’s brave. Ai Weiwei is brave in a way that Andy Warhol never was. He stands chest ballooned against one of the most authoritarian governments in the world and his work doesn’t bow to the trends of the art world. If you walk away with anything from this exhibition, it’s the understanding of the unrelenting and humble fearlessness of Ai Weiwei. Yeah, that’s bravery.

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