By Andrew Jacobs
“The things said about Warhol are intriguingly similar to what was said about Ai Weiwei today — that he desecrated art,” said 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.”
As he glimpsed the galleries on Thursday for the first time, Mr. Ai seemed genuinely taken aback by how Warhol had influenced his work, often unconsciously. (Mr. 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 said, 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 Mr. Ai, who has not been here 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 finally relented, and Mr. Ai promptly decamped to Berlin, joining his partner and their 7-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. Mr. 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 in New York.
Mr. Ai has spent much of the year immersed in the migrant crisis. He has handed out solar-powered lamps to children in refugee camps, delivered a white grand piano to a traumatized Syrian pianist and photographed the freshly arrived as they scrambled off boats in Lesbos.
“Art is supposed to make people feel uncomfortable, to change the way they look at the world,” he said. “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.”
His work may occasionally tack to the incendiary, but in person Mr. Ai is a calm, self-effacing presence — seemingly little changed from his days as the hungry East Village artist who threw away his paintings each time he was forced to change apartments.
Dressed in a black T-shirt and cheap cloth shoes, he speaks just a notch above a whisper. As workers made last-minute tweaks to the gallery lighting, Mr. Ai was transfixed by the wall of photos he took during his New York years: images of the 1988 riots in Tompkins Square Park; a snapshot of Allen Ginsberg urinating; and numerous portraits of a reed-thin and naked Mr. Ai posing like the Venus de Milo.
“No one was interested in showing the work of a Chinese artist back then,” he said, shaking his head, and turning to a wall of photographs documenting Warhol’s 1982 trip to China.