Artist, activist's work displayed along with Warhol's
Ai Weiwei came to America in 1981 without any knowledge of American art, but he quickly found inspiration from Andy Warhol.
In fact, the first book Ai purchased was Warhol's “The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again),” which had Warhol's signature inside it. Ai recalled watching Warhol from afar at parties and other events in New York City.
Although Ai never met Warhol, he carries Warhol's inspiration with him in every piece of art he creates. Some of which is being presented in Pittsburgh, Warhol's hometown.
“I still don't believe it,” the world-renowned artist said with a laugh. “I feel so happy, and it's like a dream to be here in Andy Warhol's hometown.”
Ai spoke with Eric Shiner, Andy Warhol museum director, Thursday night in conjunction with the artist's installations at two of Pittsburgh's premier museums.
Ai's “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads” features a dozen 10-foot-tall bronze statues representing the original Chinese zodiac. This display opened in the Carnegie Museum of Art's Hall of Architecture on May 28 and will be on display through Aug. 29.
He also is being showcased at The Warhol as part of the museum's exhibition, “Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei,” which will be on view to the public Saturday through Aug. 28.
Ai was born in Beijing in 1957, but since then he has lived in New York City, Berlin and Lesbos. Ai's father was a poet accused of being a “rightist,” so the family was exiled to a remote desert region of Xinjiang in northwest China when Ai was a boy. Ai endured the hardships of the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s and early '70s, which ultimately led to his decision to leave China for America.
He is not only an artist, but a social activist. Ai has been very outspoken in his criticisms of the Chinese government's position on democracy and human rights. His challenges ultimately led to his detainment by Chinese officials in 2011 for 81 days.
A majority of Ai's artistic questions stem from those asked decades earlier by Warhol. In fact, there are a lot of similarities between the two icons.
Warhol represented 20th-century modernity and the “American century,” while Ai represents life in the 21st century and what has been called the “Chinese century” to come. Both artists captured people and life via photography in New York City during their time there, and both tackled the idea of commercialism.
Warhol first explored America's obsession with commercialism in the '50s with his iconic Coca-Cola drawings. Ai took the idea a step further when he returned to China in 1993 with a newfound critical eye on Chinese art. Ai's interest in Chinese dynasties led him to paint the Coca-Cola logo onto a famous Han dynasty urn that was more than 2,000 years old.
When Shiner asked Ai why he decided to “deface” such a historic piece of art to make it more contemporary, Ai replied, “I thought I would put it (the Coca-Cola logo) on something to attract some attention.”
Both artists had a fascination with cats. It was said that Warhol at one point had as many as 25 cats in his home, and there are some who report that as many as 40 cats frequent Ai's studio in Beijing. Shiner asked Ai about his propensity for cats, to which Ai gave a short response.
“We all have our weak points,” Ai said with a laugh. “Let's leave it at that.”
The Warhol museum is exploring these similarities with its exhibition. It features more than 350 works from both artists in drawing, film, new media, photography, painting, sculpture, wallpapers and publishing. The works will adorn every floor of the building.
Ai is in the midst of a project shining light on the Syrian refugee crisis. He is working out of a studio in Greece documenting the refugees' plight. His desire to shed light on this struggle comes from his experience being exiled as a boy, he said.
“This is a tragedy of human condition, and anyone who pretends not to know is a part of the crime,” Ai said.
Phillip Poupore is a Tribune-Review staff writer.