Ai Weiwei: The Movie and the Book

Sep. 30, 2013
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Chinese activist-artist Ai Weiwei could have enjoyed a comfortable career in his homeland, especially after his contribution to Beijing’s emblematic “Bird’s Nest” Olympic stadium. But he bit his master’s hand, posting blog comments harshly critical of Olympic organizers for driving homeless migrants from the city and painting a happy face over social problems. And if that didn’t place him on a collision course with Communist China’s rulers, he poked the authorities in the eye with his investigation into the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, a natural disaster compounded by shoddy construction linked to government corruption. The death toll was a state secret, but Ai gathered thousands of victim names and presented his neatly composed ledger of tragedy as art. Surveillance cameras were installed outside his studio, detectives shadowed him and police kicked down his door and clubbed his head. He posted hospital photos online and continued the struggle. Eventually, he was arrested, accused of tax evasion and released, bowed but not broken.
Director Alison Klayman’s Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry and the new book by the Daily Telegraph’s Barnaby Martin, Hanging Man: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei (Faber & Faber) are eloquent examinations of an artist who became one of the sharpest thorns under the regime’s feet. Ai was among the first generation of Chinese allowed to study abroad after Mao’s death and gravitated to New York City in the 1980s. He became fluent in English as well as the language of the international art elite, yet he keeps aloof from the self-referential games of the art world. When the smug curator at a Munich museum asks whether Ai regards a particular piece on exhibit, his inscription of the Coca-Cola logo on a Han vase, as “an important work of art,” his reply is firm: “No.” The defacing of an ancient pot isn’t some meaningless Pop Art gesture, but instead stands for the leveling of China’s culture that occurred under Mao and continues under the state-sponsored capitalism of the present. “What the hell is art?” Ai asks an interviewer. “I consider myself more of a chess player,” anticipating his opponent’s next move in a contest where checkmate could mean prison or worse.
Ai’s father was an esteemed poet who joined the Communist Party out of idealism, only to suffer from one of Mao’s periodic cultural clampdowns. As a child, Ai endured several years in the “re-education camp” where his father was exiled. Unlike many Chinese from that period, who have chosen to lock the past in a cupboard and accommodate themselves to their government’s evolution from totalitarian killing machine to merely brutal authoritarianism, Ai is determined to embarrass and provoke the system at every opportunity, making full use of social media to document and broadcast its excesses. He is a prankster on a dangerous mission, energized rather than paralyzed by anxiety. As Martin reminds us (and the film did not), Ai could be considered a minor nobleman in the “red aristocracy” that emerged out of Mao’s circle. And yet, where most of the children and grandchildren of the revolution are content with “converting their inherited political capital into more tangible financial capital,” Ai has retained his ancestral idealism.
The film Never Sorry concludes in 2011 when Ai was arrested. Released on bail, he grew eerily reticent with the press, was banned from the Internet and slapped with a $2.4 million fine for back taxes. Hanging Man recounts the author’s successful quest to get in touch and transcribes his conversation with the artist. Ai was luckier than most dissidents. He is free if more furtive than before, yet Martin found him willing to recount his terrifying experience at the hands of his interrogators, who badgered him over imaginary as he tried to engage them in a discussion of Dada and conceptual art.

 The Hanging Man also gives insight into Ai as artist-alchemist as much as artist-activist, transforming everyday materials—notably the millions of painted sunflower seeds spread across a hall in London’s Tate Modern—into tools for changing perceptions of reality.


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