When art found subversive symbolism in Coca Cola

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March 29, On This Day

From pop art to protest art

It is easily one of the best known products in consumer culture across the world today — but fewer people know that Coca Cola started out as a non-alcoholic wine on March 29, 1886, when John Pemberton brewed the first batch of his altered ‘medicinal French Wine Coca’.

John Pemberton first brewed Coca Cola as non-alcoholic medicinal wine

What’s even more interesting is how this seemingly inconspicuous, popular soft drink has featured in art, whether iconoclastic or just plain iconic.

‘Green Coca-Cola Bottles’ by Andy Warhol | Via wikimedia.org
Coca-Cola (3)was one of many of Warhol’s pop art pieces, which celebrated popular culture and consumerism in post-World War II America. | npr.org

Celebrated pop artist Andy Warhol, for instance, had a long-standing association with Coca Cola in a series of artworks, such as ‘Green Coca-Cola Bottles’, featuring 112 empty green glass Coke bottles in 7 rows of 16, with the Coca Cola logo featured at the bottom of the painting. He further produced at least three more notable Coca-Cola paintings in the 1960s, including Coca-Cola (3) (considered a founding painting of the Pop Art movement, it sold for a whopping more than $57 million USD in 2013 at a Christie’s auction in New York). It has been reported that there was some irony in the expression of Warhol’s depictions that “at once criticized and glorified consumerist idols and surface values of America’s media-saturated postwar culture”, writes the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Ai Weiwei, Han Dynasty Urn with Coca-Cola Logo, 1993 © Ai Weiwei Studio. Courtesy Lisson Gallery | Via elephant.art
Ai Weiwei, Coca-Cola Vase, 2015 © Ai Weiwei Studio. Courtesy Lisson Gallery. Photographer: Liidongxu | Via elephant.art

Irony also underlines the work of Ai Weiwei, the brilliant Chinese contemporary artist and activist, featuring the same Coca Cola. He has taken the fizzy drink’s logo and painted it onto Han-dynasty vases clearly juxtaposing a symbol of American capitalism with ancient Chinese craft and mores, as his country undergoes a transformation in keeping with the needs of the global marketplace. The artwork also raises questions about mass production. However, it faced controversy after being labelled as vandalism.

Cildo Meireles, Insertions Into Ideological Circuits, 1970, Daros Latinamerica Collection, Zurich, Switzerland | Via Daily Art Magazine

Another artist who used Coca Cola for ‘subversive art’ is Brazilian conceptual artist, installation artist and sculptor Cildo Meireles. In this 1970 project Insertions into Ideological Circuits, Meireles — angry at the American funded military government which was ruling Brazil — purchased filled, sealed bottles of Coca-Cola, modified them by writing slogans on the outside of the bottle, then sent them back into circulation. Bottles read ‘Go Home Yankees’ or even carried instructions on how to make a Molotov cocktail.