The Ai Weiwei Andy Warhol exhibition is on at the National Gallery of Victoria – International in Melbourne. I went in the knowledge that while I understand the importance of Warhol, I’m fairly unmoved by his work. I am left as flat as his famous multicoloured prints. It’s all too familiar. Pop art too popular, perhaps?
Once the source of scandal and questions about the definition of art, Warhol’s pieces are, for me, sources of ambivalence. Yep: soup can pictures. Tick another famous picture off the list. While I definitely felt a sense of occasion at the 2004 exhibition The Impressionists: Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay, or the recent Medieval Moderns: The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood exhibition, which I visited twice. I wonder if that has something to do with the pop art sensibility or, more probably, personal preference.
Having said that Ai Weiwei took Warhol further, there were flat multicoloured prints of Chairman Mao, for instance, opposite the room with Warhol’s portraits of the likes of Blondie. Given the political context perhaps Ai Weiwei’s art is braver. From the exhibition, I get the impression that Ai Weiwei is living his art and life in imitation of Warhol. Repetition was definitely the underlying theme, not only with Ai Weiwei interpreting Warhol’s works, but through the repetition of faces, flowers, bicycles and acts.
I could see the genius of Warhol, making art of the everyday. However, I felt Ai Weiwei’s achievement more, perhaps due to the contrast between the whimsy of his cats and floating balloons and the repeated references to surveillance cameras and handcuffs and defiance in the face of oppression.
If Warhol’s art was about being noticed, and noticing everything as art, Ai Weiwei’s is about the artist being watched and doing a lot of watching. It’s also a reversal of Warhol’s ‘screen tests’ – which feature well-known people posing in films for everyone else to watch.
Warhol’s screen test participants are mostly sad/numb and contrast to his colourful flower prints (see above). Ai Weiwei’s works are not numb or sad but (to me) also not as provocative as expected for an artist who is outspoken, politically engaged, and has experienced persecution. His works are a gentle demonstration against the surveillance state. As gentle as putting flowers in guns or making marble sculptures of cameras. As gentle as Warhol and Weiwei’s shared fascination with cats.