NGV senior curator Max Delany shares why these two artistic icons share more in common than you think.

We live in the age of Instagram, social media and smart phones. Every hour countless terabytes of images and information churn through the ether of the Internet, gobbled up and discarded as quickly as it is generated; an unending torrent of selfies, likes, tweets and hashtags. The notion that this superficial medium of the zeitgeist might share some profound resonance with one of the 20th-century’s most iconic artists sounds unlikely. But you need only look as far as Andy Warhol’s celebrity Polaroids from the late 1950s up until his death in 1987 to see a familiar connection to the present day’s most prolific form of expression.

The biggest stars of the era – A-listers like Diana Ross, Grace Jones, Mick Jagger, John Lennon and Yoko Ono – are captured as up close portraits, but with the affected posing and faux-seductive come-hither looks that bear an uncanny resemblance to the ubiquitous selfie of today. “Warhol understood the power of an image – the way they circulate and proliferate. How they create meaning and cultivate desire” senior curator of the National Gallery of Victoria, Max Delany tells me. “He was really involved in establishing new social realities.”

A collection of Warhol’s celebrity Polaroids

Warhol’s Polaroids might appear surprisingly prophetic, but the pop artist’s New York studio, known as the Factory, was a kind of living social media, three decades before technology would make this the virtual mainstream. It was a place for the bizarre and beautiful, a place where honed, elaborate alter egos were relished and welcomed. “Warhol’s studio was popular with artists, bohemians, poets, musicians, drag queens, drug addicts, Hollywood superstars and politicians. But crucially it was no longer a place solely for persons undertaking their painting or sculpture. It was a social space, a carnivalesque space, a libertarian space,” Delany explains.  

Warhol’s pop art vision of Campbell soup cans, Coke Bottles and Marilyn Monroe is now indelibly imprinted on our understanding of 20th-century expression, but despite his distinctly American muse, Warhol’s output shares many subliminal traits with the work of one of the 21st century’s most important living artists, Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei. These connections are illuminated through a major new exhibition at the NGV, Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei, which will present more than 300 works by both artists exploring their relationship.

“Duchamp had the bicycle wheel, Warhol had the image of Mao. I have a totalitarian regime: that is my readymade.”

Perhaps on face value, the similarities seem few. Warhol’s working-class Pennsylvanian upbringing in an Eastern European Catholic family is geographically and culturally worlds away from Ai’s childhood, living in exile with his family on the edge of the Gobi Desert during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Warhol’s notorious public persona as the unselfconscious, effete, openly gay artist and socialite in mid-20th-century New York is totally at odds with Ai’s more reserved, almost toughened demeanour as a notable activist and political opponent of his native Government. Aesthetically, the two artists’ work is also fairly distant, but Ai’s thinking as an artist owes a significant debt to Warhol’s underground, bohemian philosophy.

First arriving in the US in 1981, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again) was the first book Ai read in English, and the foundations of Warhol’s mindset described in these pages spoke to Ai across the American-Chinese cultural divide. “Ai Weiwei learns a lot from Warhol during this period,” Delany shares. “As much as anything Ai connected with Warhol’s transparency and openness, his means of communication and his interest in documenting everyday life.”

Ai Weiwei poses in front of Warhol’s self-portrait at the Museum of Modern Art in 1987

Warhol’s ideology of bucking social conservatism and the glorification (and subversion) of celebrity and consumerism explores the same concerns as Ai Weiwei, albeit through a very different cultural prism. Warhol’s understanding of the manipulation of capitalist advertising shares the same DNA as Ai’s exploration of propaganda and government oppression. Warhol’s indiscriminate attitude to artistic mediums, using drawing, painting, printmaking, photography, film, music and computer art, mirrors Ai’s similarly varied output. They also share a strong belief in social engagement: Warhol’s Factory is the counterpart of Ai’s prolific online presence as a blogger with over 301,000 followers on Twitter and 179,000 followers on Instagram. Both men also ardently adore cats (a fact that is the focus of the NGV’s Kids space during the exhibition).

As one of the principal curators who developed the exhibition, Max Delany has thoroughly unpicked Warhol and Ai’s affinity. He believes the synergy in their way of thinking explains why both artists have earned such a globally reaching appeal. “They are both artists who work and make art that communicates directly,” he says. “They both exploit popular means of communication: a vernacular language that’s easy to understand. They’re also both about the transformation of cultural heritage and cultural values using everyday, familiar references.”

Ai Weiwei’s huge online profile has increasingly brought fans of his work into direct contact with his social and artistic statements, such as with his Leg Gun image to mark the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 2014, which became an internet meme replicated by thousands worldwide. The NGV became the focal point of its own Ai Weiwei viral moment when a bulk order of Lego bricks to be used in an installation at the NGV was refused on apparently political grounds.

Ai’s Instagram post about the rejected order gained traction online under the hashtag #legosforaiweiwei and prompted spontaneous donations of Lego from across Australia and beyond, leading to the NGV installing the Lego Car in its Sculpture Garden as a depository for Lego donations. This level of social influence is yet another similarity between Ai and Warhol, Delany says. “Just like Warhol, Ai Weiwei is someone who can put an idea into the world and allow it to take root and spread. He’s very aware, like Warhol was before him, of the way that one can harness communication to build new communities.”

Ai Weiwei’s Forever Bicycles (2015) being installed at the NGV

Both are also, in their respective ways, radicals, although Warhol’s shakeup was that of the American art establishment’s preoccupation with abstract expressionism. In contrast, Ai’s activism is more conspicuous, against Human Rights issues in China, which saw him incarcerated without charge for 81 days in 2011 by the Chinese government. However, even Ai has acknowledged the allegory between his politics and the artistic tradition to which he is linked, saying, “Duchamp had the bicycle wheel, Warhol had the image of Mao. I have a totalitarian regime: that is my readymade.”

Ai’s words, likening his dogged opposition of the Chinese government to Warhol’s screenprints of the communist revolutionary leader, throws a different light on the public perception of Warhol’s ultra-famous work, Delany believes. “Ai Weiwei’s work engages with some profound notions of the individual and the State, modernity and tradition. But people often think of Warhol as being superficial, flippant, all about celebrity,” Delany says. “Just look at the iconography of Warhol’s work: the electric chair; race riots; guns; his death and disaster series; the most wanted man; the notions of glamorised American culture. This is an artist who is using really important historical moments. In my opinion, he is arguably one of the greatest history painters.”

It feels apt that Ai Weiwei, an artist who has been so significantly, yet subtly influenced by Warhol, can now be subtly influential on our understanding of Pop Art’s most famous exponent. 

Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei opens at the National Gallery Victoria opens December 11 2015 until April 24 2016.