Artists Melbourne

Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei at the NGV

The NGV [National Gallery of Victoria] has an outstanding exhibition at the moment (on until April 24th) of work from And Warhol and Ai Weiwei. The gallery’s publicity says:

Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei, developed by the NGV and The Andy Warhol Museum, with the participation of Ai Weiwei, explores the significant influence of these two exemplary artists on modern art and contemporary life, focusing on the parallels, intersections and points of difference between the two artists’ practices.

I have to show my ignorance ~ what I knew about Ai Weiwei could have been written on a postage stamp, and Andy Warhol only something slightly bigger. Now I understand that you have to know the context of their work to appreciate all the complexities and layers. For example one work of Ai’s was simply a packet of infant formula. At first glance you go “Huh?”. Knowing that it was a packet of the formula laced with melamine that killed 6 babies and hospitalised 54,000 you go “Ahhh”.

Much of Ai’s art is driven by his need to expose corruption in the Chinese Government. This is from his entry in Wikipedia 

 As a political activist, he has been highly and openly critical of the Chinese Government‘s stance on democracy and human rights. He has investigated government corruption and cover-ups, in particular the Sichuan schools corruption scandal following the collapse of so-called “tofu-dreg schools” in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.[4] In 2011, following his arrest at Beijing Capital International Airport on 3 April, he was held for 81 days without any official charges being filed; officials alluded to their allegations of “economic crimes”.[5]

After that arrest his Beijing studio was under constant video surveillance. Ai’s response was unusual. He put a bicycle outside the gate, in sight of the camera. Each morning a fresh bunch of flowers was placed in the basket and the photographed. The resulting work is a beautiful wallpaper of bouquets but knowing the back ground gives it an edge.

With flowers, Ai Weiwei, 2013 – 2015 (Photo copyright: Anne Lawson 2016)

The Wikipedia quote above mentions the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Ai was horrified at the loss of life, especially the number of children who were killed because of the shoddy construction of schools. He attempted to find out the names of the children who had died. This is the story, from the caption of his digital wallpaper Names of the student earthquake victims found by citizens’ investigation 2008-11

The Chinese government refused to release the names of the deceased or answer allegations of faulty building construction in government schools. In response Ai launched a ‘Citizens’ Investigation’ to uncover the names of the student victims and record details about their schools and families. With the help of 100 volunteers, the investigation confirmed the names of 5192 students who perished in the disaster. Naming each individual victim is Ai’s attempt to dignify the individuals.

The photo below shows the corner of a room, with the wallpaper with the names of the students on the right hand side. Look how small the writing has to be to fit in all those names. The rectangular box is a film projected onto the back wall. The film showed Ai creating a sculpture made from the reinforcing rods salvaged from the earthquake rubble.


Close up of the names on the wallpaper.

Ai Weiwei chooses unusual ways to make his art. I loved the little room created out of Lego blocks. On the walls, floor and ceiling were quotes from Victorians expressing ideas of equality.

Often he made me smile, like Safe Sex, created in the 1980s at the height of the AIDS epidemic.

Safe Sex Ai Weiwei, 1986. (Photo copyright: Anne Lawson)

Then there is his shocking destruction of Chinese artefacts. He takes neolithic pots and dips them in house paint, he films himself dropping a Han dynasty urn, and then turns that into a tryptic made from Lego. These are acts that made me cry out, until I understood the political activism behind. Ai is drawing attention to the greater Government cultural desecration that has gone on and continues still. He shows film footage of miles of rubble where houses and other buildings have been knocked down to make way for the Olympic infrastructure. He has collected the feet of Buddha statues, the only part of the statue left after destruction during the Cultural Revolution.

Are his actions right? Are his smaller desecrations acceptable if they show up the larger state-sponsored desecrations? I don’t know, but I do know that he has made me see that there is something beyond the vandalism.

Lots more interesting works, whimsical floating balloons, fine drawings, porcelain flowers and common household stools……

Oh, and Andy Warhol’s work was there too! I loved his drawing and use of colour.

It is an important exhibition, and I am grateful to have been able to understand a little more about these artists. Do go and see it if you get the chance.

(All these photos were taken by me. Please ask if you would like to use them.)

6 replies on “Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei at the NGV”

I suppose art as protest is often likely to raise a protest of another kind, the Han dynasty vases being a case in point. It sounds a wonderful exhibition, and I’m very sorry to have missed it, but time was so short while I was there…


What a fascinating exhibit, Anne. Thanks for sharing the details behind his pieces. You’re right too, that it makes each of them come alive. We’re so lucky to live in a western culture that allows freedom of expression with out fear of persecution, prosecution and sometimes death. Powerful, indeed.

Great photos, and so much to think about.


It was a very interesting exhibition, and I have continued to have more discussions with people about Ai’s artistic methods, especially in regard to cultural destruction.


Yes, and thanks from me – I know a lot of snippets/facts about China & it’s secrets – especially relationship to community. I’m not aware of complexities behind some of the so called great things but when disasters happen we see first hand (even secondhand, if Reuters news is not available) the community befallen… And as you mentioned with the baby formula – you need to see the history of the fact to understand…I remember that formula situation, I think it caused a backlash to other companies especially the NZ milk corporations who export such stuff…


You are so right that we usually get the headlines and miss out on much of what is really happening. I am so grateful for people who go beyond those headlines for us.


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