‘To navigate the temporal chart of Ai’s work, there are no better guideposts than his Coca-Cola pots, a series which began in 1994 and has continued to the present’
(G. Adamson, Ai Weiwei Sunflower Seeds, exh. cat., Tate Modern, London, 2010, p. 50).
‘The actions imposed on antique Neolithic and Han pots represent the destruction of conventional or established values’
(K. Smith, H. U. Obrist and B. Fibicher, Ai Weiwei, New York 2009, p. 104).
‘Preserving his cultural heritage or paying homage to the past is not Ai’s goal. The artworks are unapologetically intended to subvert instituted notions of culture and of the role and form of art: to question the value of all, and to unsettle the status quo, much as the interventions and actions of Duchamp and Joseph Beuys achieved’
(K. Smith, H. U. Obrist and B. Fibicher, Ai Weiwei, New York 2009, p. 62).
Executed in 2009, Ai Weiwei’s Coca-Cola Vase is part of an iconic series of hand-painted vases which began in 1994, shortly after the artist returned to China after twelve years in America. It was there that he was first exposed to artists such as Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and Marcel Duchamp, whose ideas about cultural appropriation had a critical impact on his conceptual outlook. By delicately painting the famous ‘Coca-Cola’ logo, a symbol of capitalist America, onto an ancient Han dynasty vase (206 B.C.–220 A.D.), Ai powerfully strips the object of its original value and rebrands it as a contemporary commodity. As Ai comments, ‘People think that I’m interested in Chinese traditions, which isn’t true. I’m more interested in our past human behaviour and our understanding of values, and I explore this by dealing with some existing readymade concept that everybody accepts as untouchable or fixed’ (Ai Weiwei, quoted in Ai Weiwei Sunflower Seeds, exh. cat., Tate Modern, London, 2010, p. 88). Like his provocative photographic series Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995, which documents Ai’s deliberate destruction of a similar ancient object, the present work invites us to confront the assumptions and value judgements latent in contemporary culture. In a society where antiquities are carefully preserved and consumer items instantly discarded, Coca-Cola Vase brings about a clash of principles, undermining the historical sanctity of the vase and extending the ubiquitous territory of the logo. As Karen Smith explains, ‘The actions imposed on antique Neolithic and Han pots represent the destruction of conventional or established values’ (K. Smith, H. U. Obrist and B. Fibicher, Ai Weiwei, New York 2009, p. 104).
As he set off for America in 1981, Ai believed New York to be the capital of contemporary art and a place where his creative impulses could freely flourish. His artistic language was radically overturned by the discovery of Warhol’s manipulation of mass-produced images. For Warhol, ‘A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it’ (A. Warhol, quoted in The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: (From A to B and Back Again), New York 1975, p. 100). The concept of the readymade and the use of popular images, as espoused by Duchamp and Johns in particular, had an equally important impact upon the artist, evident in his use of everyday objects such as bicycles, hangers and chairs. Like Johns’s monochrome appropriation of the American flag, Coca-Cola Vase questions the way in which manmade symbols and objects affect our collective sense of identity. ‘The Coca-Cola logo is a clear announcement of property, and of cultural and political identity’, Ai has stated, ‘but it’s also a clear sign to stop thinking. It’s full of ignorance, but it’s also a definition’ (Ai Weiwei, quoted in S. Phillips, ‘Ai of the tiger, Royal Academy of Arts Magazine, No. 128, Autumn 2015, p. 58). By radically recontextualising the logo – an image we have come to take for granted in contemporary society – Ai encourages the viewer to see it in a new light: as a piece of history, as fragile and contingent as the vase itself.