The Philosophy of Ai Weiwei (From Andy Warhol and Back Again)

Left: Ai Weiwei, Chinese born 1957–
Williamsburg, Brooklyn 1983
from the New York Photographs series 1983‒93
Collection of Ai Weiwei
© Ai Weiwei


IN OUR AGE of the selfie and instant upload, the self-portrait has far different cultural and aesthetic values than it had in the past. It thus seems only appropriate that the National Gallery of Victoria, in Melbourne, Australia, should exploit this aesthetic form in the work of the two artists featured in their current exhibition, Andy Warhol|Ai Weiwei (AW|AW). The exhibition, which opened on December 11 and runs until April 24, pairs the work of an iconic American pop artist with that of a contemporary Chinese artist and political activist, and the result is fascinating.

One of the most magnetic self-portraits in the exhibition features Weiwei standing in front of a Warhol self-portrait. Taken during the period when Weiwei was living in New York, “At the Museum of Modern Art” (1987) sees Weiwei emulate one of Warhol’s ruminative “philosophic” poses, copying the faux-ironic posturing of one of the 20th century’s most famous artistic celebrities. This portrait represents — ironically enough — a powerful metaphor for the marriage between the two figures in the show, an index to our age of rampant self-representation, with its complex politics of selfhood, consumption, and communication.

Warhol’s confluence of pop culture and contemporary art was groundbreaking, destabilizing the elitism that separated art from the realms of mass culture and everyday life. Weiwei exists on a very different cultural and political plane, but one that, as his 1987 self-portrait suggests, was strongly influenced by Warhol. As an artist whose work and activism have led him to be exiled, jailed, and banned by the Chinese government, Weiwei’s art would seem, on the surface, to offer a stark contrast with Warhol’s interest in the glittery banality of the modern world. Over against Warhol’s ironic passivity — which included having others manufacture his artworks in his so-called “Factory” — is positioned Weiwei’s aggressive political work, which has publically shamed his country’s government by documenting its abysmal human rights record and the corruption that riddles modern Chinese life. The result of the union of these two artists is to unveil the deeply political undercurrent to Warhol’s iconic obsessions, as well as to foreground the provocative ways in which Weiwei has developed and extended them.

3. Weiwei_At_MOMA
Ai Weiwei Chinese 1957– At the Museum of Modern Art 1987 from the New York Photographsseries 1983–93 silver gelatin photograph Ai Weiwei Studio © Ai Weiwei; Andy Warhol artwork © 2015 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./ARS, New York. Licensed by Viscopy, Sydney.


Even before the exhibition opened, it was shrouded in controversy. Danish toy company Lego decided not to supply Weiwei with the pieces he needed to complete new artworks commissioned for the exhibition, arguing that the company “cannot approve the use of Legos for political works.” But Weiwei was insistent and, after being inundated by fans with millions of Lego pieces, used them in a series of portraits of Australian activists and political campaigners for the exhibition.

Thus, from the outset, the exhibition was framed in political terms. Weiwei’s use of Legos connects his aesthetic with Warhol’s deployment of the banal objects of our ordinary material world, reconstituting these objects’ original bourgeois meaning. The Lego pieces have been used to recreate Weiwei’s controversial 1995 triptych “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn,” which saw the artist smash a rare antique vase. The recreation not only offers an ironic nod to his former work but also allegorizes our inability to actually destroy more contemporary signs and symbols of our over-saturated world of plastic consumables.

Returning to the issue of self-portraiture, what a portrait of the artist meant to Warhol is very different from what it represents for Weiwei. While Warhol used the form to comment on the increasingly arbitrary and blurred relationship between the original and its duplicates in a world of mass production, Weiwei’s self-portraits are more concerned with national identity and issues of censorship and autonomy. Inherently political, they are usually crude and unfiltered selfies that not only document his precarious identity as an outlaw artist in China but also — ironically enough — are infused with a powerful sense of originality and authenticity. A well-known user of Twitter and Instagram, Weiwei famously took a selfie called “Illuminations” (2014) while being arrested by the Chinese police. The selfie is thus imbued with a political dimension: it is a kind of defense, an attempt at self-documentation that not only underlines Weiwei’s pacifism but also circulates images of arrests and seizures the Chinese government would prefer to hide. (Weiwei also famously took a selfie in 2008 after being hospitalized due to a police beating.)

1. Warhol_with_skull
Andy Warhol American 1928–87 Self-Portrait with Skull 1977 Polaroid™ Polacolor Type 108 10.8 x 8.6 cm The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; Founding Collection, Contribution The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. 1998.1.2866 © 2015 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./ARS, New York. Licensed by Viscopy, Sydney.


While Warhol emulated mass production, communicating his artistic vision through prints, photographs, and philosophical treatises, Weiwei’s approach has been to adopt and integrate various communication technologies into his work. From photography, which he took up in the 1980s, Weiwei moved to publishing, then on to curating in the 1990s, before finally moving into blogging in the 2000s — a practice that has compounded his notoriety in China, infamous for its policing and control of online activity. Most recently, social media has been the platform of choice, in which Weiwei has used his selfies — many of which appear in the exhibition — as templates to interrogate his national and political identity in ways that have reached a wide audience. (Weiwei has over 300,000 followers on Twitter, 200,000 on Instagram.) Max Delany, NGV’s senior curator of contemporary art, says that Weiwei is an “artist who engages with media and communications […,] radically transforming the idea of the studio and artistic production […] [and] redefining the role of the ‘artist’ […] as a brand.”

Weiwei’s work brilliantly exploits our age of instant upload and our obsession with celebrity, more extreme than during Warhol’s heyday since our ability to access, follow, and communicate with celebrities has reached a kind of zenith. This is most apparent in AW/AW in the commissioned Lego portraits of well-known Australian activists. Weiwei paradoxically politicizes and commercializes these public figures, showing us the ubiquity of celebrity in our culture while also interrogating the very status and function of fame today. Looking at the portraits of these well-known Australians, all of them begin to look more like Warholesque silkscreen celebrities than actual politicians.

Both Warhol and Weiwei are significant in the way they have challenged and transformed how many of us understand the process of artistic production and the role of the studio. Warhol used his famous “Factory” in Midtown Manhattan less as an artist’s workspace and more as a meeting spot for New York’s intellectuals, bohemians, drag queens, movie stars, and socialites, a hub of camp hedonism and carnivalesque excess, decked out in aluminum foil and silver paint. Weiwei, similarly, has created his own unconventional studio, recruiting a team of researchers and craftspeople, designers and activists, social media experts and archivists, and adopting an interdisciplinary, tech-savvy approach to the creation and circulation of his work. Built in 1999, Weiwei’s studio became the headquarters of his architectural business, now known as “FAKE.”

Given China’s standing as one of the world’s leading superpowers, Weiwei is not shy about interrogating its image in the Western psyche. Weiwei’s enormous installation piece “Forever Bicycles” (2011), in which 1,500 bicycles are stacked to a nine-meter height, is set in the center of the NGV’s foyer. The work is similar to other large-scale pieces by Weiwei, including “Sunflower Seeds” (2011), made up of a hundred million hand-crafted porcelain seeds, which was displayed at Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in London. Both of these huge pieces have been recreated in Melbourne, but Weiwei has added “Blossom,” a delicate bed of thousands of porcelain flowers — a gorgeous response to Warhol’s floral silkscreen prints. Where Warhol was commenting on the mass production and circulation of American cultural forms, Weiwei’s art indexes the “Chinese miracle,” with many of these porcelain flowers marked “Made in China.” If Warhol was the artistic prophet of midcentury American mass production and consumption, so Weiwei is a prime artistic commentator on China’s contemporary identity — at least in the eyes of the West — as a mass exporter of consumer goods.

2. Weiwei_Dropping_Vase
Ai Weiwei Chinese 1957– Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn 1995 3 silver gelatin photographs 148.0 x 120.0 cm each (triptych) Ai Weiwei Studio © Ai Weiwei


Warhol famously said “I like boring things” — a dictum that is apparent throughout most of Weiwei’s work in AW|AW. With his videos “The Second Ring” and “The Third Ring,” both from 2003, Weiwei used a camera to spotlight Beijing’s sprawling highways and freeways, capturing the changing topography of the enormous metropolis through static framing of traffic flows. The video, like one of Warhol’s endless films (such as 1964’s Empire, which focused a camera of the Empire State Building for eight solid hours), is one of the dullest works in the entire exhibition of more than 300 pieces. But this is Weiwei’s goal, as it was Warhol’s: to use art to invigorate the banal, to make the everyday interesting, and to ironize the notion that the ordinary is an insignificant topic for artists to interrogate.

The marriage between Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei thus proves inherently political. The pairing between the two artists offers a probing alternative reading of Warhol’s work, with Weiwei’s overtly political adaptations of Warhol’s themes and techniques questioning much of the existing discourse on Warhol, whose status as a pop icon has tended to overshadow the political valences of his work. One of the most fascinating items in the exhibition is a small book called Weiwei-isms (2012), a collection of aphorisms and quotes from Weiwei on life, art, and politics. Much like Warhol’s 1977 book The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again), which featured the artist’s sprawling essays on sex, celebrity, and America, Weiwei-isms is a contemporary spoof of Mao’s Little Red Book with parallels to Warhol’s collection. On the back of the small volume is a gnomic, Warholesque epigram: “Everything is art. Everything is politics.” — which would make an appropriate slogan for this exciting exhibition.


Nathan Smith is an arts and culture writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, New Republic, and The Daily Beast.