A wide pot made of red, earthy clay is decorated with geometric details. Maybe it's an ancient artifact, a tool from the past in a glass case. But then you spot the silver cursive letters.
This piece is clearly contemporary.
“We’re looking at Ai Weiwei’s Neolithic pottery with Coca-Cola logo from 2007. It’s juxtaposed with Andy Warhol’s Coca-Cola #2 from 1961,” said Jessica Beck, curator of the Andy Warhol Museum’s Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei exhibit.
The pairing was so popular that museum officials extended the show through September 11 to accommodate a record number of visitors, Beck said. It drew Pirates fans, students, senior citizens and tourists through all seven floors.
Communications manager Jessica Warchall said the museum attracted 2,000 more guests in August alone than the same period in 2015. About 8,000 more people have attended the museum this year to date compared to last year’s total, she said.
“When you pair an internationally recognized contemporary artist like Ai Weiwei, who has been in the media so much recently, with Pittsburgh’s native son, you expect to get locals and tourists here and to make this part of their destination,” Warchall said.
The exhibition marks a historical moment for Pittsburgh and Ai.
The artist’s visit to the Steel City in June was his first jaunt to the United States since regaining his travel papers, which were seized by the Chinese government claiming tax evasion in 2011. People donated money to help him pay the $2.4 million he was charged, and the gallery is wallpapered with distinct IOUs he’s handwritten to each contributor.
Both men used art to comment on controversial topics, curators said.
The museum’s fourth floor features a gallery called "Surveillance and the State," which explores Warhol and Ai Weiwei's respective relationships with politics.
Warhol’s 1964 photographs of the 13 most wanted men are just a room away from Ai’s “Study of Perspective,” which displays images of the artist’s middle finger in front of places of power, like the White House.
The cult of personality defines the two artists, according to Beck. Both Ai and Warhol present everyday life as art and have created pieces so iconic, sometimes the more subtle, political messages get lost.
“You really have to come here and expect to spend a little time unpacking the exhibition and (drawing) comparisons," she said, "because our permanent galleries are hung in a chronological (order) for Warhol but this show itself blends between years between the two of them.”
According to Beck, the commonalities between the artists intensify as visitors work their way down to the second floor finale, a gallery filled with pieces of colorful flowers. Warhol’s signature flower pop-art pieces hang next to a wall filled with photos from Ai’s Instagram. Each square photo of a neon flower arrangement represents a day the artist did not have his travel papers.
Leaning against the wall is a Forever bicycle, a popular Chinese brand. Beck said that visitors should notice Ai and Warhol come from different cultural contexts.
“The materials of a lot of the sculptures have a direct tie to political issues in China … and often when you see Warhol, it’s always American commercial branding on a lot of the sculptures,” she said.
Beck added that Ai and Warhol also differ in their use of technology.
“I think with Ai Weiwei you see new forms of media,” she said, “The wallpapers, when you really look at them, they have dates on them, and you know that they’re dated because they’re from Instagram.”
The museum lifted its prohibition on photography to let guests appreciate how both Ai and Warhol conveyed their messages. Ai actively posts on social media today in the way that Warhol wore a recorder around his neck, capturing every moment.
Beck said visitors have often posed with the works and posted photos online, contributing to the process of making art a reflection of the present moment.
Information about the Ai Weiwei | Andy Warhol exhibit are available online.