Friday 11 March 2016

Warhol + Weiwei Together in Melbourne

I visited the Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei exhibition as a guest of the National Gallery of Victoria.

Over the past two years I've seen a great deal of Andy Warhol's work: at art museums in Cologne, New York, and Los Angeles. Many years ago, I also saw a travelling exhibition of his art while on a visit to Vienna.

Today I saw even more of it at a major exhibition here in Melbourne, but with a twist. The Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei exhibition combines and contrasts the work of two great artists - one an American who defined pop art in the late 20th century; the other a Chinese dissident at work in the 21st.

At first glance it may not seem likely they'd have much in common; but they do, as becomes clear in the first room of the exhibition:

On the left you can see some of Warhol's most famous works - his paintings of Campbell's soup cans.

In the centre are ancient Chinese pots to which Weiwei has added a garish new glaze, similarly appropriating a well-known cultural item in order to have it seen in a new light.

More of this iconoclastic approach can be seen in this large piece made of tiny building blocks, in which the artist drops an ancient vase:

And another vase has an obvious Warhol vibe:

There are more parallels throughout the exhibition, such as this one between a Weiwei work intended to resemble grapes (left) and a Warhol series of flowers (right):

Though Warhol was unconventional, however, he wasn't an overtly political rebel (though his art did include disturbing images of violence in America). That's where the two artists diverge, as Weiwei has been in conflict with Chinese authorities for much of his career.

On that note, a highlight of the exhibition is a new Weiwei piece gifted to the NGV, The Letgo Room.

It's a large cube through which people walk, its interior decorated with quotes from Australian human rights campaigners.

It was supposed to be constructed, as the name suggests, from Lego bricks.

However, the Lego company refused to fill the order due to the work's political connotations, causing outcry and donations of bricks from the public all around the world.

In the end it was put together using a copycat Chinese brand of bricks, an apt or perhaps ironic touch.

The show isn't all serious, thought-provoking art. One of the most fun items in the exhibition is Weiwei's riff on Warhol's Silver Cloud and Cow Wallpaper (which also appears in the exhibition).

Warhol's piece has large silver balloons gusted about by fans to a backdrop of cows. Weiwei's homage, Caonima and Bird Balloons, has two types of balloon bobbing about - one based on a kind of alpaca.

In both cases, visitors can walk among the balloons, gently batting them as they float through the space.

I've merely scratched the surface with this overview of the exhibition. There's lots to see, it's imaginatively displayed, and you'll walk out feeling you've had some enjoyable intellectual exercise as well as having seen some intriguing art.

Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei continues to 24 April 2016 at NGV International, 180 St Kilda Rd, Melbourne, Australia. Entry: $26 adult, $22.50 concession, $10 child. For more, see the NGV website.

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