Ai Weiwei and Andy Warhol together again

Ai was a struggling artist when he first met the iconic American in the 1980s. Now, their works are put side-by-side in a show

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei with Andy Warhol's balloon works at the Warhol Museum.

PITTSBURGH • One was a wildly successful artist, the son of Slovakian immigrants, whose alabaster complexion and shock of white hair made him instantly recognisable on the streets of Manhattan.

The other was a shy film school student from Beijing who toiled in anonymity, sketching US$20 sidewalk portraits to make the rent on his basement apartment.

And though their paths crossed at more than one downtown art opening in the 1980s, it is safe to say that Ai Weiwei, the young Chinese striver, made little impression on Andy Warhol as he flitted through the adoring throngs.

"I remember going to a gallery opening and hearing people say 'Andy is here, Andy is here,' and suddenly I saw him through the crowd," Ai says, while walking through the exhibition Andy Warhol/Ai Weiwei at the Warhol Museum. "It was incredible to be in the same room, but I was a nobody."

In the 25 years since he abruptly left New York to tend to his ailing father in China, Ai has become a somebody. Wily provocateur, enemy of the state and media-savvy advocate for the disenfranchised, he is a darling of the global contemporary art world, a bona fide celebrity whose burly, bearded presence invariably draws admiring crowds.

Warhol and Ai, it turns out, have plenty in common.

Like Warhol, Ai surrounds himself with stray cats, has a fondness for neon-tinted floral arrangements and takes pleasure in subverting hallowed cultural touchstones.

Both men have also made a mint turning everyday objects into sought-after commodities. And Ai, like Warhol, compulsively records his life and surroundings - Warhol had his tape recorder; Ai always has his iPhone, which he uses almost hourly to post a deluge of images to Instagram and Twitter.

But the two men are conjoined by something more significant. They are both unrepentant iconoclasts and gleeful disrupters of art world conventions. Warhol scandalised with his soup cans in 1962; three decades later, Ai defiled neolithic Chinese pottery with tutti frutticoloured paint and he once famously smashed a Han dynasty urn just for the heck of it.

"The things said about Warhol are intriguingly similar to what is said about Ai Weiwei today - that he desecrates art," says Mr Eric Shiner, director of the museum, which is staging a dialogue show of the two men's works that runs through August. "Yet in reality, both artists changed, and are changing, how the world understands art and how art penetrates the world."

Such commonalities are on full display at the museum. One room juxtaposes Warhol's garishly tinted Mao Zedong with Ai's own vaguely sardonic portraits of the Great Helmsman; another places the Warhol Coca-Cola paintings alongside a centuries-old Chinese vase that Ai scrawled with the Coke trademark logo.

As he glimpsed the galleries last Thursday for the first time, Ai seemed genuinely taken aback by how Warhol had influenced his work, often unconsciously. (Ai was first exposed to the artist after arriving in New York, when he bought a dog-eared copy of Warhol's ironic quotations at The Strand.)

"It's as if we were brothers," he says, noting the similarities of Warhol's early bird's-eye ink sketches of the Manhattan skyline to his own youthful renderings of Shanghai's rooftops. "Who could imagine that a poor Chinese kid would one day be showing his work alongside Andy's?"

The past few days have been especially emotional for Ai, who has not been in the United States in eight years. He spent several years in internal exile after the Chinese authorities jailed him for 81 days on spurious charges of tax evasion and then refused to relinquish his passport.

Last July, the police relented and Ai promptly decamped to Berlin, joining his partner and their seven-year-old son who live there. In addition to lecturing at Berlin's University of the Arts - a position he was offered just before his arrest - he has spent the past year working at a feverish pace.

His studio, which occupies an old brewery in what once was East Berlin, has become a frenetic hub, staffed by an international coterie of assistants - not unlike Warhol's Factory. Ai also opened a studio on the Greek island of Lesbos, where he plans to build a memorial to the thousands of refugees who have died crossing the Mediterranean. And every month, it seems, there is a new exhibition of his work - in Australia, England, Austria and New York.

Ai, 58, appears exhausted by the travel, but says he would not have it any other way. "You have to work when the light bulb is bright," he says pointing to his head, "because over time, it will dim."

His work has not been without controversy. In February, he was widely skewered after he posed for a photograph lying on a pebble beach - an image meant to evoke the photo of Alan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler who drowned off the coast of Turkey.

A few weeks later, during a Berlin Film Festival gala, he directed celebrity guests to don the metallic thermal blankets that volunteers give to arriving immigrants. Berlin's culture minister called the gesture "obscene". Ai, unsurprisingly, is unfazed by the uproar.

"Art is supposed to make people feel uncomfortable, to change the way they look at the world," he says. "I've been receiving criticism my whole life, but if you're going to throw a punch, it should be a real punch, not this kind of mediocre criticism."

Even as Ai revels in his newfound freedom, he is mindful that the life of an exiled dissident has its drawbacks. Living in Europe, he says, has diminished his voice as a human rights advocate in China.

Unlike most persecuted activists who have been given the chance to leave, Ai refuses to seek asylum.

This week, he will return to Beijing for a visit, a journey that fills him with trepidation. Ai says he wants to see his family and friends, but he also wants to demonstrate to the Chinese authorities that he has not abandoned his homeland.

But he seemed somewhat conflicted about his role - an exiled government critic or someone who willingly and perhaps foolishly steps back into the dragon's maw.

"It's not honest for a real Chinese fighter to be outside," he muses. "You're just throwing stones."


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 06, 2016, with the headline Ai Weiwei and Andy Warhol together again. Subscribe