Why we shouldn't see Ai Weiwei as Warhol's heir
The new exhibition Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei, is thrilling, but the beauty lies in the artists' differences
In an interview conducted to promote Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei, the blockbuster show that opened at the NGV International, Melbourne, Australia last weekend and runs until 24 April 2016, the Chinese artist said he was partly drawn to the exhibition because he felt he and Andy were both very close, and “so far away, so far apart”.
It’s a fair assessment. While both artists share a love for cats, a sense of populist spectacle and an interest in the world bequeathed to us by mechanical reproduction, the works on show don’t suggest that the Chinese artist is the late American’s heir.
It’s been said that Warhol, had he lived, would have taken to social media, and Ai – an avid Twitter and Instagram user, appears to agree, suggesting that Andy’s clipped idiot-savant prose style would prefigured tweets at their best, even if it is hard to imagine the Pope of Pop posting requests for Lego donations in order to create portraits of twenty Australian human-rights activists, as Weiwei has done for this show.
Warhol’s anti-Nixon print of 1972, and his later pro-Green Party print of 1978 (produced at Joseph Beuys’ behest), prove he is more politically engaged than some commentators assert. His screen prints of the Last Supper and the Birth of Venus hint at a level of historical depth clearly present in Weiwei’s use of ancient vases and temple timbers. Yet the subject that Andy expressed most finely in his Campbell’s cans, soap boxes, Jackie Kennedy and Elvis portraits – all on show here – was the cool, near amoral thrill of the 20th century.
Ai, a long-standing Warhol admirer, may have created a homage to Warhol’s silver mylar balloon installation, yet his latter-day shiny blow-ups are in the shape of the Twitter insignia and Caonima, the cheery cartoon alpaca whose name in Mandarin sounds a lot like a very rude phrase, and who has become an online, anti-government meme.
Perhaps the fun in this Australian show isn’t to be had in the similarities, but in the contrasts. Warhol was the laureate of his age and continent, whereas Ai Weiwei captures our later period of surveillance and online freedom, human rights and state control using comparable methods, but from quite a different position, in terms of geography and temperament. We’re lucky to have them both.
To understand Ai Weiwei better, buy our monograph, the first ever published on this important artist; and for more on Warhol consider our wide range of Warhol books, from this simple Phaidon Focus introduction through to our magisterial, multi-volume Catalogue Raisonné