From A to W and Back Again

Andy Warhol Ai Wei Wei, National Gallery of Victoria, 11 December 2015—24 April 2016

The names intertwining on the catalogue cover looked like a hip corporate logo or an old-fashioned wedding invitation. Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei. All those As and Ws. All those diagonals waving back and forth. And the poster looked great: one artist with sunglasses on and the other holding his eyes open (but this also a sly comment on the stereotypically slanted eyes of Asian people). It was a match made in heaven or at least cooked up in the back rooms of the Andy Warhol Foundation. It was a way at once of bringing Andy up to date and giving Ai (believe it or not) some art-historical credibility. It was a perfect amalgam of old and new, West and East, 20th and 21st centuries. And, strategically, it allowed the National Gallery of Victoria to be seen to be responding to the pressure all Australian galleries feel now to be part of the region in response to the success of the long-running Asia Pacific Triennial in Brisbane.

It was such a brilliant idea that one walked around the exhibition admiring it. It was a comparison between the artists that was somehow bigger and better than the artists themselves. It was a comparison that the work seemed to illustrate or, to put it another way, it was a comparison that seemed to be the real subject of the show rather than the work itself. In a strange sort of way, one wandered through the rooms of the gallery marvelling at the various comparisons able to be drawn between the work without bothering to ask what they said about the work itself. Like the greatest of poetic metaphors, it was instantly compelling, evocative, recognisable, but without us actually being able to say what it meant or what it was for. “Andy Warhol Ai Weiwei”, that is to say, functioned something like an empty signifier, which every spectator could read into what they wanted and seemed to confirm every interpretation in advance. Like the brand name “Coca Cola”, to which both artists had devoted work, it added nothing to the objects it referred to but paradoxically without it they would have been nothing.

But let no one be mistaken. Andy Warhol Ai Weiwei was an exemplary exhibition for our times, telling us everything we needed to know about our current museological condition. It was flawlessly, seamlessly, if ultimately redundantly curated. Redundant because contemporary works of art do not need to be curated and don’t need to be in museums. But what could we mean by this? Take, for example, another museum retrospective featuring two giants of modern art, Matisse Picasso, at MoMA in 2003. In that exhibition, curator John Elderfield exercised aesthetic discrimination, offered certain formal and stylistic insights. He was able to point to the mutual influence between the two artists, the conscious borrowings from Matisse by Picasso and the largely unconscious borrowings from Picasso by Matisse. There was nothing like this here. Not simply because Warhol is obviously prior to Ai, but because it is not a matter of any stylistic influence that Ai has to mediate. Nor would it even be a question of Warhol passing on some strategic lesson that Ai would then have to work through. Rather, we might say that Ai’s work, like Warhol’s, is simply there before us. Without style, without strategy, it is its own self-evidence, its own self-justification. Ai does not follow Warhol, nor do we have to read Warhol back through Ai. In fact, we might want to suggest, for all of its logical impossibility, Warhol and Ai are the same.

But, again, what might one mean by this? The catalogue essay by curator Max Delany speaks of the relationship between the two artists in terms of “dialogue” and “correspondence”, but it is undoubtedly more than this.(1) For this is to imply that we could measure some degree of difference between the two bodies of work, plot their respective paths along some art-historical progression. However, on the contrary, we might say that each artist stands alone, does not follow any other and certainly does not need any narrative of art to justify them. It might be suggested, for example, that Ai follows Warhol, that he draws on the example he sets and the kind of authority or at least precedent he establishes in the art world. But, in truth, it is not like this at all. Ai’s work receives its authority not through any aesthetic pedigree or art-historical genealogy, but through its own visibility, accessibility and dissemination. It is this that it requires for it to be possible, for it to continue, for it to not be censored and not at all the highly politically mediated (and in this sense compromised) museum exhibition.(2) The museum in this sense is not at all a gateway and the curator not at all a gatekeeper. Indeed, we might even reverse this and say that the museum today draws whatever prestige and relevance it has from Ai’s work, from the intense visibility and publicity that Ai’s work gives it.

We might then in order to “substantiate” all of this recount the layout and organisation of the show, which was divided up into a series of rooms, each of which addressed a certain thematic or strategic match between the two artists. But, as we suggest, this would not be in any sense to offer any kind of insight into the work, to narrate it or to reveal any particular relationship between Warhol and Ai. Rather, its arrangement throughout the gallery is more like the repetition of an original tautology, the recounting of a founding equivalence between two bodies of work that are not to be separated by style, strategy or even historical precedence. In fact, we come out of the exhibition feeling that any of the work could have been made by either artist and that any of it could have been paired with any other. Thus, if in one of the first works we see in the exhibition we have Ai posing with his fingers up to his mouth standing next to Warhol’s Self-Portrait (1966) at MoMA when he was in New York in the 1980s, we can equally imagine the young Andy, if he had been in Beijing in the 1990s, standing next to this photo of Ai with his fingers up near his mouth in that famous Sphinx-like pose. In both cases, the artists—against all of the efforts of curators and art historians—understand themselves as a continuation of the series of self-portraits they stand next to. They would not come after them, be in any meaningful sense influenced by them, but simply be the next in an endless series, as the “original” portraitist equally understood himself.

So—to offer an overview of the exhibition—at the entrance of the NGV, next to the much-loved waterwall, we have one of Ai’s large Fountains of Light (2007) and further inside one of the signature works of the exhibition, the largest version yet of Ai’s ongoing Forever Bicycles series (2015), a gargantuan sculpture made up out of stacked silver bike frames. Then, to give just a brief survey of the various rooms, in the second room of the exhibition, we have both artists’ photographs when they were in each other’s countries, Warhol’s in 1982 when he travelled to China as part of the thawing of American-Chinese relationships following Nixon’s original visit there in 1972 and Ai’s throughout the 1980s when he was living and studying in New York from 1981 until 1993. In the fourth room, we have Warhol’s 1966 Screen Test of Marcel Duchamp and Ai’s Hanging Man (1985), a coathanger bent into Duchamp’s distinctive profile, which was meant to suggest Duchamp’s influence on both artists. In the ninth room, we have works dealing with the subject of violence and crime, with Warhol’s mugshots and screenprints of guns and Ai’s diorama-like recreation of his 2011 detention in fibreglass. In the eleventh room, across a corridor, in arguably one of the exhibition’s few false steps, we have in a darkened room Warhol’s Myths (1981) (amongst his least interesting works) and Ai’s gold sculptures Circle of Animals (2010). In the third last room, towards the end, we are shown both artists’ self-publishing programs and in the last room, as an extension of this (but this is where perhaps a certain “flattening” of their respective projects is most evident), we have examples of both artists’ movement into other media, Warhol’s abortive television program and documentaries by or featuring Ai on contemporary Chinese current affairs. In the middle of the exhibition, between the two halves, we have Warhol’s famous cow wallpaper and Silver Clouds (1966) matched with Ai’s own metallically reflective wallpaper and Bird Balloons (2015). And all of this is not to forget the inevitable children’s room, dedicated in this case (in what could be understood as a secret confession as to the status of all of the comparisons in the exhibition) to the two artists’ mutual love of cats.

There is obviously in all of this an attempt to draw out the commonalities between Warhol and Ai, either thematically (room seven on portraits, room nine on violence) or in terms of medium or strategy (room three on their early drawings, room thirteen on their respective studios). There is even, as we say, with the room on Duchamp, an attempt to locate an “origin” out of which both come, as though it would serve as some kind of an explanation. And yet, we would want to say, drawing a contrast with something like Matisse Picasso, it is not properly a question of “influence” here, either from some other artist to Warhol and Ai or between Warhol and Ai themselves. Take, for example, room five, which features both artists’ treatment of flowers. What possible connection is there really between Warhol’s well-known Flowers (1964), seen here in their reduced portfolio version of 1970, to say Ai’s Bicycle Basket with Flowers (2015), which is a recreation in porcelain of the flowers he placed outside his studio every day for a year and a half until the authorities returned his passport after his detention? Precisely the point of Warhol’s Flowers is that they are unoriginal, with all of the usual associations flowers have accumulated throughout the history of art withdrawn from them. (Indeed, Warhol even at one point faced a legal suit over his unauthorised use of a photo of flowers taken by another in his making of them.) They are intended to be as unsuggestive, unevocative and perhaps even as unproductive as possible as works of art. And Ai’s work for its part is also an attempt to avoid all of the conventional aesthetic associations of flowers, and even we might suggest their commemorative function, to be replaced with a purely activist and worldy gesture – which is what they have in common with Warhol, but would also be to suggest that they would want to do away with any artistic support from or connection with him.

Similarly, we would contend that this occurs with even the more “weighty” connections drawn between the two bodies of work, for example, room nine devoted to death and violence, with its images of mugshots and guns by Warhol and the fibreglass diorama and wooden replicas of the handcuffs in which Ai was placed in detention. Here again, exactly because these works are more concerned with the social, is it really “art” that we need to compare both to, which is in truth the only way of connecting them? Aren’t both sets of works outward-facing, seeking effects in the world, so that any comparison between them would be no more than coincidental, of no more relevance than any of the other things in this world? Or even, to put it the other way around, wouldn’t any artistic comparison we made here, in light of the serious social matters being addressed, essentially be to trivialise what is at stake? Would it not have no more depth, offer no more insight into their respective projects, than the artists’ shared love of cats? To conclude, what is the special status if any of the comparisons the curator observes? Do they properly correspond to a series of shared concerns by the two artists, or are they merely a variety of convenient categories for spreading the works out across the available gallery space? Why these and not others? In fact, we would want to suggest, it is not across—across to art or the work of another artist—that we should look but outwards. For the work seeks as much as possible to empty itself of any internal qualities and instead to become an effect in the world. The meaning of the work, we might say, lies not in the work itself, but only in its relationship to the people standing in front of it in the gallery.

But, to explore this in more detail, let us turn to undoubtedly the key confrontation in the exhibition: Warhol’s Mao wallpaper (1974) and portrait of Mao (1972), which were hung within sight of the most publicised and controversial work in the exhibition, Ai’s Letgo (2015). In an obvious sense, the two works could be understood to constitute an antithesis or at least to point to a certain incompatibility between them. To begin with, what is going on with Warhol’s Mao? Of course, the classic reading of Warhol is that, through his repetition of the omnipresent image of Mao, he is subtly ironising the ideological conformity of the Chinese state. (Warhol made his works around the time of the resumption of diplomatic relations between the two countries, and scholars have for some time been discussing the complex question of Warhol’s political allegiances.(3) It is not through the actual difference between the variously psychedelically-hued Mao portraits that Warhol would open up a critical distance onto him but, as with his other serial imagery, through the repetition of the image itself. And it is this difference hidden beneath an apparent conformity—and, needless to say, Mao can be understood to be smiling in his portrait, always for Warhol the sign of this undecidable irony(4)—that is the very democracy that he can be seen to be opposing to Chinese totalitarianism. Democracy here would be not so much any actual ideology as an internal distance from all ideologies, understood as an enforced obedience or belief as such.

Across from Warhol’s Maos, the curator has installed Ai’s Letgo, which was a large room entirely made out of the children’s building block Lego. Of course, the story of the making of Letgo is by now well known. Ai had originally proposed making the work out of Lego, but the Lego company, undoubtedly featuring a potential governmental backlash in China, refused to fill Ai’s order for the bricks. In response, Ai at once instituted an Australia-wide campaign whereby people could donate their unwanted Lego so that he could make the work and—this proving too late to build it—in revenge ordered Chinese copyright-breaching knock-offs of the original Lego to construct the work. And upon entering the Letgo room, one saw a series of portraits of Australian advocates of human rights, along with a one- or two-line statement summarising their views. Thus we had, for example, anti-domestic violence campaigner Rose Batty, who said: “Family violence may happen behind closed doors, but it needs to be brought out from the shadows into the broad daylight”. We had the jailed Al Jazeera journal Peter Greste saying: “For me, freedom is like oxygen—as long as we have it it is largely invisible, but when it’s taken away we understand how vital it is to the way we live”. We had the Aboriginal actress and activist Rosalie Kunoth-Monks saying: “Mother Earth, as designed, should be able to care for all living creatures that live on her without the threat of being assaulted by the greed of man”. And all of this is to be understood as an extension and making explicit—along with Ai’s own undoubted life lesson—of Warhol’s work, a critique of totalitarianism and a reminder of the eternal vigilance required to maintain our democracy, the way our freedoms need constantly to be defended, against not only direct (the Chinese state in respect of Ai) but also indirect censorship (the Lego company refusing Ai permission to make his work).

However, the ambiguity of the relationship between the two works is indicated by the fact that no one could possibly disagree with the sentiments of Ai’s work. Not even, one would imagine, the Chinese Communist Party, to which it is notionally opposed. And this points towards the real politics at stake in Ai’s (and Warhol’s) work, which is “democratic” only in the sense of seeking to have as many people agree with it as possible. Indeed—and here is where this democracy can be said to topple over into a form of totalitarianism—the work does not even allow the possibility of disagreement, if in order to have this disagreement one has first to stand in front of it. For precisely in the world of the internet, Facebook and Twitter—and perhaps the most crucial room in the whole show was the one containing a live feed of Ai’s constantly updated Instagram account, paired with Warhol’s own attempts to record the whole of the world with his three-minute Screen Tests (1964-66) and eight-hour Empire (1964)—it is simply the encounter with the work or more particularly Ai that is enough. That is to say, the model of politics espoused by Warhol and Ai is a kind of radical populism, in which all people agree, all people are in touch with other, all people are ultimately the same. And this is what we might mean by the absolute literality of the work, in which what is important is not at all what it is of or about but the fact that it makes itself visible to us and we come before it. That is enough, that is the true test of the success of the work.

In fact, in terms of its political meaning, Ai’s work is absolutely ambiguous. For if, on the one hand, it is its visibility that is understood as inherently democratic, a way at once of surveilling the Chinese state and ensuring that it cannot be censored, on the other, it is the visibility of Ai’s work, the fact that it has not been censored, that is testament to the democracy of the Chinese state itself, the fact that it is not totalitarian, does not actually seek to control everything. We even have something of this in one of the documentary films in the last room, in which we see one of Ai’s associates filming the Chinese police filming Ai as he goes about his daily business after being released from detention. Of course, it has to be understood first of all that this filming of the Chinese police filming Ai is to reverse the gaze, to surveil those who would surveil Ai, but at the same time—and this is undoubtedly conscious on Ai’s part—like a Dan Graham video piece or the final scene in Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs in which all the gangsters have their guns trained on each other, it also constitutes something of a closed loop. If Ai films the police filming him and thus infringing upon his liberty, the Chinese police for their part, insofar as they do not just film Ai but allow Ai to film them, also testify to the fact that they are not entirely infringing upon Ai’s freedom, that he is free to reverse their gaze upon him, as in the very video we are watching.

It is in this light too that we must grasp Ai’s photo of his once-girlfriend now-wife Lu Qing lifting her dress at Tienanmen Square without anyone apparently noticing (June 1994, 1994) and the long series of photos of Ai raising his middle finger at a number of world monuments (the Sistine Chapel, the Sydney Opera House, the Eiffel Tower) in Study of Perspective (1995-2011). Although, of course, we must understand the photos of Ai sticking his finger up as a principle of total resistance—the very sign of art’s essential Adornoian “negativity”—as much as anything they might remind us of hip new tourist ads, along the lines of the current Tourism Australia campaign, in which youthful travellers are asked to submit their own best selfies from their trips. For before the negative content of the images, their form is an absolute positivity: not merely a showing of the artist in the presence of a number of famous monuments (the point of all tourist snaps), but the implication or interpellation of us in front of the work. That finger up in the middle of the scene is us in front of Ai’s photos. We stand in front of Ai’s photos in the gallery in the same way as Ai stands in front of those world-renowned objects. What we think—finger up or finger down—only comes later and is strictly irrelevant. The fact is that we were there and we now have proof. (And Lu lifting up her dress is the same: before any gesture of dissent, it is a picture by Ai of his girlfriend in Tiananmen Square. Indeed, Ai’s photos are as much as anything a forerunner to that new variety of tourist photo in which the subject of the photo performs some dangerous stunt while being photographed: balancing on a window ledge, standing on the edge of a cliff, pretending to jump off a tall building.)

All of this is to point to the wider context in which art museums necessarily operate today. For, as we say, the real point here is that museums provide no accreditation, no cultural capital, no boost in status for art any more. Art like Warhol’s and Ai’s simply does not need a museum. Work like theirs—and this is what Warhol was moving towards with his photos and films and what is finally accomplished in Ai’s videos and social media—far outstrips any museum in its visibility, reach and popularity. If anything, an exhibition like Andy Warhol Ai Weiwei is merely the occasion for a fresh outbreak of publicity, a spike in internet hits, a trending on Twitter. It is this again that we mean by the literality of the work, which has nothing to do with its status as art. It is simply there before us, present, visible, in a straightforwardly numerical figure. The success of the work is no longer judged qualitatively but quantitatively, by simply asking how many people saw it, how many people “liked” it. As the museum itself is measured numerically, by its visitor numbers and Facebook Likes. The art and the museum are in the same race, only the museum plays at a lower, more local level. The café at the end of Andy Warhol Ai Weiwei had a saying of Warhol’s written large across one of its walls: “The only quality I trust is quantity”. It was not meant ironically, but entirely seriously. It was, after all, the way the exhibition and the museum housing it was judged, just as it is undoubtedly the way the café itself is judged.

The disciplines of art history and curating have begun to think this new situation, to which they have given various names: the “post-critical” (Hal Foster)(5), the “aggregative” (David Joselit)(6), “actor-network theory” (Bruno Latour)(7). But perhaps it is appropriate to remember that, at least according to its creator, the modern museum “blockbuster” started with an exhibition of Egyptian funeral reliquaries.(8) For in many ways the language we need to describe this phenomenon is religious. We are simply there to pay homage to the work, which is simply there to be seen by us. It is not strictly speaking a question of belief. Our mere presence before it is enough for us to believe. The work is good because the audience has come to see it and the audience comes to see it because the work is good. And this must have been something like the thinking behind putting Warhol and Ai together, which was a guaranteed hit as soon as it was conceived. It is the impenetrable tautology facing art criticism today, in which as soon as the critic has paid their money and entered the gallery it is already too late. The art critic, like the curator, can only stand by and watch while the work forms its consensus, which no one can stand outside of, until it becomes the world. At this point we can only pray and hope that a god will come to save us.


(1) Max Delany, ‘Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei: In Dialogue and Correspondence’, in Max Delany and Eric Shiners (eds.), Andy Warhol Ai Weiwei, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2015. Of course, we realise that in saying this we are going against Charles Merewether’s excellent Ai Weiwei: Under Construction, University of New South Wales Press, Kensington, 2008, which explicitly argues for the influence of Warhol (and, indeed, Duchamp) on Ai.

(2) It is notable, for example, that Ai’s detention by Chinese authorities in 2011 is barely addressed in the catalogue essays. It’s quite possible that the gallery felt some difficulty addressing this matter, for fear of upsetting the Chinese government. Ai himself was at least at first forbidden from talking about it as a condition of his release from prison. See on this Isaac Stone Fish, ‘Ai Weiwei Speaks Out on His Detention’, Newsweek, 13 November 2011 (

(3) See, for a sample of this scholarship, the treatments in Anne Wagner, A House Divided: American Art since 1955, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2012; and John Curley, A Conspiracy of Images: Andy Warhol, Gerhard Richter and the Art of the Cold War, Yale University Press, New Have, 2013.

(4) See Jean Baudrillard, ‘Pop: An Art of Consumption?’, in The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures, Sage Publications, London, 1998, pp. 114-21.

(5) Hal Foster, ‘Post-Critical’, October 139, Winter 2012, pp. 3-8.

(6) David Joselit, After Art, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 2013.

(7) Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2005.

(8) Thomas Hoving, Making the Mummies Dance, Touchstone, New York, 1994.

(9) Header image courtesy of The National Gallery of Victoria.


Professor Rex Butler teaches in art history in the Faculty of Art Design and Architecture at Monash University. He has recently completed a history of UnAustralian art with A.D.S. Donaldson.