3:29 pm Jul. 27, 2012
Not much time passes in Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry without someone taking the titular artist's photograph.
Fans, reporters, Chinese authorities, and, perhaps more than any of these, the artist himself, snapping a self-portrait and beaming it out to his hundreds of thousands of Twitter accolytes around the world. Images and image-making are—in some ways inadvertently—the subject of this new documentary, which opens today, by filmmaker Alison Klayman.
Klayman followed Ai for two years, through what turned out to be the most exciting and volitile era of his life. Though Ai's been a big name in the contemporary art world for more than a decade, he had the two largest solo shows of his career at the Haus der Kunst in Munich and the Tate Modern in London. During those two years he also spearheaded an effort to shed light on the Sichuan earthquake, was beaten by Chinese police, precipitating emergency brain surgery (and a legal campaign to investigate the incident), had his newly built studio space condemned and bulldozed by Chinese authorities and, most harrowing, was held in secret detention for 81 days, from which many feared he might not return. Since then the tumultuousness has not slackened. Just last week he lost his appeal in a $2.4-million tax-evasion case, a case in which he was barred from attending his own hearing by authorities. (The money isn't the issue—his supporters donated $1.4 million last year to pay the bond for the tax appeal, as documented in the film, where we see supporters dropping off cash in envelopes at Ai's studio compound.)
It's hard to imagine, through all this activity, holding forth as a public figure, writing blog posts, traveling across China, and making his own politically conscious documentaries at a furious clip (he made 25 in the two-year span of filming, several of which are recycled for use in this film), that Ai could find time to pursue his day job, making art. Yet he does, and does so spectacularly. That his studio assistants self-identify as "hired assassins" tells you all you need to know about the stakes of Ai's art practice and its ambition.
We are unused to seeing an artist whose public life is so furiously active and yet whose work continues to engage with the upper echelons of the contemporary art world. There is certainly no artist in the world today to rival his status in both areas (in 2011, he was at the top of ArtReview’s "Power 100" and was runner-up for Time’s “Person of the Year”), and perhaps never has been. Yet while Ai's global presence is undeniable, his status, and importance in his own country is somewhat less accessible, something this film also finds itself having trouble relaying.
We are meant, through the testimony of his assistants (many of whom call him "teacher Ai" in a mark of almost apostolic deference), his family (his mother, wishing he could just be an artist since "no one can solve everyone’s problems," breaks down in tears from her worry, and he half-consoles, half-chastises her), his friends, those in the international art community (mostly Westerners) and several journalists, to learn that Ai is enormously influential in China, a strong voice for change. Yet we never much see outside the frame, outside his (necessarily) insular world. Moreover, the complexities of contemporary China, the relationship between east and west that his career reflects, cannot possibly be captured by such a film, and aren't much reckoned with.
When Ai travels to make a documentary and investigate the shoddy construction of schools that collapsed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake disaster, we know that the trip results in a film, a number of artworks, a list of more than five thousand names of schoolchildren who perished in the tragedy (though it's understood there were many more young victims), and intense surveillance and attention from authorities. What we don't learn is how many in China read the blog post, saw the film, or heard about his work. 10,000? 100,000? 1,000,000? And what did his work mean to those who saw it? His work is unarguably brave and commendable, but how does it fit into contemporary Chinese life, society, and activism?
"If you don’t act," Ai says, "the dangers become stronger.” Yet we in the West may have a tough time comprehending what the "dangers" might be.
And yet it's possible that more Westerners see Ai's work than Chinese. So the largest audience, potentially, for his Sichuan project, are those who saw the 9,000 backpacks he had mounted on the façade of the Haus der Kunst in Munich, to spell out in Chinese the phrase “She lived happily on this earth for seven years,” a mother's elegy for her daughter lost in the earthquake. The stakes, and deployment of such a work halfway across the globe are incredibly complex.
Take the sunflower seeds: 100 million of them filled the Tate London's immense Turbine Hall during Ai's show there in 2010. Each porcelain seed was hand-painted by artisans in Jingdezhen, once China's hub for imperial porcelain. The seeds were self-referential—Ai has done several projects where he shatters valuable ancient clay pots—but also spoke to issues of commerce (made in China), labor conditions (he employed 1,600 people, a good portion of the now-depressed town, to make them), counterfeit culture, and the role of the individual in the seemingly boundless sea of the Chinese population. (Sunflowers were also closely associated with Mao Zedong, particularly in his official iconography.) For its part, Klayman's film displays the impressive spectacle of the exhibition, but transmits little else.
Ai's work ought to be investigated thoroughly. He's been investigating what role the artist has to play in contemporary society—particularly Chinese society, and how art can have a social function. That's a vexed role in the contemporary world, and in a China in flux, where sweeping economic growth has triggered a new openness in some areas and ever greater repression, media manipulation, and censorship in others. Ai's first world-stage moment came when he was asked to design the Bird’s Nest stadium, the centerpiece of the Beijing Olympics. He played along, but also used the opportunity to harshly criticize the games for providing a platform for China's state-sanctioned whitewashing of the nation's image. There is, of course, a kind of binary between Ai's image-making and that of the government. Ai gets closest to acknowledging such a binary when he says “if the government didn’t [harass] people it would cease to be the government”
The other self-image Ai has always been obsessed with, of course, is that of his own middle finger, flipping off the Eiffel Tower, the White House, or Tiananmen Square. In the film we see him photographed by fans, still flipping off the camera. Yet it is the image of him that seems to have the most power now, more even than his own quite potent artwork. A montage of scenes in the film to show the international reaction to his detainment display slogans, impassioned please, but mostly that pudgy half-grinning face, the buzz of hair above, the triangle of beard below.
He's become his own icon. We in the West tend to see him as a brash, good-humored yet idealistic dissident—just the sort the West likes—and to chalk up his deep investment, and that of his work, in Chinese society, history, and politics, as minutiae. What's still up for debate is what his life and work tells us about the role of the artist in society—in China or anywhere—but what offers hope is his tirelessness, his seriousness, his cleverness, and his endurance to speak out and keep making new images.
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