On December 11th 2015, the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) opened one of its most ambitious exhibitions; an international showcase of works created by revolutionary Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei, and American pop artist, Andy Warhol. Developed by the NGV and the Andy Warhol Museum, with participation of Ai Weiwei, the exhibition seeks to explore the parallels and contrasts between the works created by two of the most influential artists of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. On offer is over 300 works, ranging from sculpture, to photography, paintings, film, and immersive installations. Walking through the exhibition, a narrative about politics, culture, humanity, and freedom in the modern world unfolds, revealing the ways in which art can be used as an incredible tool for social change.
As someone trying to navigate their way through the changing contemporary landscape, I was struck by the universality of the work on display. From a Chinese context to that of the American, themes such as heightened celebrity culture, subversion of power, and a quest for intimacy in an increasingly globalised world came forth from the work of Ai Weiwei and Andy Warhol. As an Australian, I felt these sentiments resonate deeply within me; art has no language and knows no borders. In particular, Ai Weiwei’s commitment to human rights advocacy can be seen through his work ‘With Flowers’. In this series of photographs, Ai Weiwei depicts the everyday, public street, on which he has placed flowers, in a play on government surveillance. Similarly, Andy Warhol’s portrait of Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis, following the death of John F. Kennedy, illustrates how the personal can be political. This portrait brings to light both the solitary mourning of the widow, and the collective suffering of a nation.
Importantly, this exhibition highlights the significance of global cultural exchange. At a time when technology essentially allows us to connect with most parts of the world instantly, we have much to learn from people existing in places different to ours, not only in terms of economics, politics, education, and science, but also in relation to arts and cultural movements. In Melbourne, we are incredibly fortunate to have an institution as amazing as the NGV to bring art from other parts of the world to us. Arguably, as a multicultural community, we should encourage greater cross-cultural dialogue through the arts, in order to heighten our understanding of each other and of ourselves.
Much like how Ai Weiwei responds with gentleness to political perversion, and uses art pop to uncover a deeper, violent aesthetic struggle in Maoist China, Andy Warhol addresses cultural politics in twentieth century ‘American’ modernity and questions a society fixated on fame and consumption. The curation of the work of the two artists by the NGV and the Andy Warhol museum, with involvement by Ai Weiwei, tells a story of universal themes, and opens space for dialogue across cultures in the arts sector. Not only does the exhibition show the strength of art and creation in human rights and political advocacy, it also shows us how similar we all are, and how much stronger we are together.