Exhibition review: Ai Weiwei at the Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh

James Patrick Carraghan
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The combination of Ai Weiwei and Andy Warhol is less than predictable. Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei, currently on exhibition at the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, presents the themes of the two artists in conversation with each other. At its best, the show manages to deconstruct some of the East/West binary, while documenting the reach of consumerist culture worldwide.

The inclusion of Asian artists in many venues tends to fetishise the ‘ancient tradition’, or presents the artist as a cultural refugee fleeing the censorship of their homeland for the protection of free speech in the west. This show is self-conscious, in that it not only tries to subvert this narrative (Weiwei, after all, is not in exile from China) while representing the difficulties Weiwei has faced for his artwork.

As it stands, Weiwei seems to be someone who would easily be embraced by a politicised art establishment. His arrest made him a symbol for the virtue of free speech and artistic Liberty, while highlighting the darker side of the Chinese government. There might be an attempt made in some quarters to claim that Weiwei’s standing in the art world derives more from his politics than his art–though there can be no doubt of its value in both realms.

What would be the point, then, of having a show with Andy Warhol? Warhol was an artist who seems to be apolitical. He produced cultural images with almost the same regularity as an advertising department, without much explicit commentary on the person or phenomenon depicted. Would it not be the case that these two artists would have very little to say to one another?

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There are more connections between the two artists than one would think.

Weiwei is clearly under the influence of Warhol in the way he represents cultural consumption. Several pieces included in this exhibition involve Weiwei’s conscious destruction of artifacts – either by dropping them, letting physics handle the rest, and creating a portrait memorial of the incident in Lego brick, or by spray-painting the Coca-Cola logo on a Han dynasty pot. These works are protest pieces, based not on the destruction of the image for the sake of attention, but on reflecting the two great revisionist movements of our age. It criticises both the destruction of artifacts through various regimes in Chinese history (especially the Cultural Revolution under Mao – a favorite Warhol figure), and also the corporate sponsorship of museums. To whom do the artifacts really belong? They may represent ‘our’ history, but now their care is paid for by Nestle.

In the Lego portrait, Lego bricks reflect the digital pixelization effect of the video camera used to film Weiwei smashing the pot, and serve as a larger counter to the idea of high-definition, smooth images as pleasing aesthetic requirements. This is one of several works which reflect on the place of cameras and surveillance footage in our society. Perhaps this is best reflected in two statues, under glass, of surveillance cameras carved out of marble.

Three large dark blue bowls stand in the centre of one room. Each of the bowls is filled with pearls which shine pink and white and creamy under the gallery light. It turns out that these pearls are not the valuable sort. They are imperfect, abundant pearls of little individual or group value; not the Japanese ones which are prized and significantly more expensive. In the jewellery trade, they are referred to as ‘Rice Krispies’. (Draw from that term what you wish.) The piece asks how we come to view one item or variation as valuable while something so similar is worthless. The connection to rice–both in terms of the derogatory name and the presentation here–also raises a query or two about the way rice, a staple of the Chinese diet, is valued.

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A series of ready-mades hang in one room, flowing from Weiwei’s coat-hanger portrait of Marcel Duchamp to Warho’s sculptures of Brillo Boxes. One piece is just a cement block featuring Warhol’s signature–a piece which no doubt is included simply to make visitors question, as the first ready-mades of Duchamp’s most certainly did, ‘What is art?’

Another wall is filled with images of the flowers Weiwei placed in front of his studio every day until the Chinese government returned his passport and lifted his travel restrictions, following his 2011 arrest. By comparison, Warhol’s flower silk screens on the surrounding walls seem devoid of any sense of meaning or beauty, and the connection between the two strains, with Weiwei far surpassing Warhol.

As I wandered through the museum and came to Weiwei’s ‘Exercise in Perspective’ series, I began to think about what it means when Americans embrace artists who come to attention it’s dissidents. Think about Pussy Riot. How many people supporting them actually took the time to read the lyrics of what the women in balaclavas were singing in that church? When my country embraces them, do we really understand the cross-cultural gap we have to fill in so that we may determine their reason for acting as they did? In this series of photographs, Weiwei extends his middle finger towards some of the great works of architecture in the world. Many of my fellow visitors looked at this series and laughed. But who is being ‘flipped off’ here? The buildings being targeted serve as representations not only of the art and architectural establishment, but also for the state more generally.

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One of the last pieces of the exhibition is a picture of a young Weiwei standing in front of one of Warhol’s many self-portraits, recreating both the pose and the expression. The influence here is spelled out better than in any of the cards around the artwork: Warhol peeks over Weiwei’s shoulder. The two bring their artistic talents to the same table and are each able to create something to be excited about. A beautiful image and a simple tribute.

Some of the other museum visitors stood slightly to the right, recreating both poses and created a selfie-within-a-selfie. I felt deeply uncomfortable watching them.

If Warhol documented our obsession with consumption, Weiwei challenges us to think beyond the surface; to question not only why we worship these symbols, but what we have to sacrifice in order to see them. Whether Weiwei is successful or not remains to be seen. We have yet to find out how many have resisted the urge to imprint their selfie over the ancient pots.

Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei will be showing at the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania through 16 August 2016.

About James Patrick Carraghan

James Patrick Carraghan is an award-winning activist, writer, librarian and student at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania. He spends his free time gardening, hording books and flirting. You can follow him on tumblr at http://thelibrarynevercloses.tumblr.com/