Detained Chinese Artist Ai Weiwei’s Visit to The Warhol Museum Uncertain
Recent popular revolutions and protests occurring all over the world have brought to light an international fight for freedom of expression that has been empowering for some and nerve-racking for others. As reported by Sampsonia Way on April 5, many Chinese activists, writers, and lawyers have disappeared or been placed under house arrest by the Chinese government. The Chinese Communist Party’s heightened security is likely intended to stop a repeat of the Jasmine Revolution from happening in China, following uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East. World renowned Artist and activist Ai Weiwei is one of the most recent to disappear after his arrest at Beijing Airport on April 3.
Ai Weiwei was scheduled to visit Pittsburgh in May 2011. His installation “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads” is set to open at The Warhol Museum on the Northside in 2012. With his recent disappearance, it is unknown whether or not Ai Weiwei will be visiting the city. Eric Shiner, Acting Director and the Milton Fine Arts Curator for The Warhol museum, answered a few questions about Ai Weiwei, the installation, and the artist’s relationship to Andy Warhol.
Why is Ai Weiwei an important figure in contemporary political art?
Ai Weiwei has made a career of pushing buttons and opening minds. It’s important to remember that his work critiques political systems and social structures the world over—not only those of his homeland China. He looks at the notion of power as it manifests itself in global corporations, the art world, and governments, so he is critiquing many aspects of society beyond the mere political.
How are his installations changing the face of art?
Ai Weiwei’s installations, sculptures, and photographs combine architectural engineering, Pop Art imagery, ancient tradition, and countless other influences into a fully contemporary object that forces the viewer to challenge his or her own assumptions and viewpoints. Of course, this is the job of artists the world over, but Ai Weiwei does so in a poetic, yet always provocative way.
What is the significance of his “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads” installation?
The work questions the notion of country-specific “cultural heritage.” When two of the heads came up in an auction of the estate of French fashion designer Yves St. Laurent a few years ago, the Chinese government tried to block the sale, saying that these were important cultural properties that had been looted from the Emperor’s Summer Palace by French and British soldiers during the Second Opium War. That much is true. However, after doing a bit of research on the origins of the heads, Ai Weiwei uncovered their background and the fact that they were designed by Italian artist Giuseppe Castiglione, who was the court painter to the Emperor, and that they were realized by a French sculptor who was brought in for the job. Therefore, the heads were European in their design and fabrication, yet came to stand for Chinese culture. Ai Weiwei thus questions the overall notion of culture in the display of these larger-than-life remakes, based on Castiglione’s original designs.
Ai Weiwei was scheduled to visit Pittsburgh. What will happen now that he has disappeared?
He was scheduled to be here in early May. Now that he is missing, we do not expect him to come, but we do hope that all is well with him wherever he may be.
Ai Weiwei is sometimes called the “Chinese Andy Warhol.” As curator for the Andy Warhol Museum, what do you think of this comparison?
It is problematic to speak of any artist under the heading of someone that preceded him or her. That happens frequently, but for Warhol and Ai Weiwei I believe the connection to be much more than a simple similarity in trends; Ai Weiwei has been engaged in a decades-long dialogue with Warhol’s work. That, I hope, will be evident in the show that we will mount at the museum in the fall of 2012.