This is an excellent documentary by young filmmaker Alison Klayman, about Ai Wei Wei, artist, activist and giant thorn on the side of the Chinese government. It shows how a smart conceptual thinker like Ai is exploiting the capabilities of technology, namely twitter and the internet, to try to shift the balance of power from government to society at large. This movie made me think that the creators of twitter probably never imagined that a gossiping application would become a revolutionary tool for social change. Ai Wei Wei can see that, and is using it very smartly to raise hell.
Ai is one of the world’s most famous artists, both because of his provocative conceptual gambits, like destroying an ancient Chinese vase on camera or painting another one with the Coca-Cola symbol, and also for using an amalgam of conceptual art and social media to single-handedly demand, at considerable personal risk, accountability, transparency, democracy, freedom and justice from the notoriously repressive Chinese government.
Ai is angry and fearless, informed (even if he denies it) by having witnessed his father’s humiliation at the hands of Mao’s “cultural” revolution, one of the most perverse totalitarian cruelties in history. His sense of outrage is visceral: provocation is in his blood. Ai is the product of a confluence of factors, a child of the Maoist persecution of artists and intellectuals, yet at the same time a beneficiary of the westernization of China, someone who was able to leave China and come to New York to start life as an artist. To judge from his global notoriety and his house in Beijing, he has been financially successful. He is the most famous Chinese artist in the world today. Because of his worldwide fame, he was courted by the authorities to collaborate on Bird’s Nest stadium (something he later disowned). His twitter feed, accompanied by snapshots, is an abbreviated form of conceptual art. He gets beaten by police, takes a picture, posts it with a pithy remark and soon two hundred thousand people in China and many more the world over (there is a version of the feed in English) are spreading the word. He is a professional provocateur. As a fellow artist says in the film, there is something of a hooligan in him, so he knows how to deal with the hooligans of the Chinese government. In him, the Chinese authorities have met their match.
The terrible 2008 earthquake in Sichuan galvanized him to demand from the Chinese authorities they own up to their “tofu” buildings, badly built schools that collapsed and killed more than 5000 children. In a move that blurs the lines between art and activism, he enlisted a squadron of volunteers who went all over Sichuan asking for the names and ages of the children who died in the quake and then he published the endless list, something that the government should have done. Since then, he has been harassed incessantly by the authorities, who display petty, ruthless and arbitrary methods, which he never fails to meet in contrary acts of defiance. They commissioned him to build a huge artists’ studio in Beijing and as soon as it was finished, they decreed to have it razed. He decided to counterattack by inciting people to join a massive party, which he could not attend, because he was under house arrest.
He is an interesting, if uneven conceptual artist, who communicates, through massive installations and acts of artistic defiance, his devotion to the idea of democratic change and a truer reflection of the reality in China today. His installation of millions of ceramic sunflower seeds at the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall is pretty astounding. Devastating also is the colorful giant mural he made out of children’s backpacks, stating the phrase, “She lived happily on earth for seven years”, a quote from the mother of a young child who perished in the quake. Just as the Chinese authorities are unrepentant about hounding him, so Ai Wei Wei is unrepentant about provoking them. He was detained and incarcerated for three months and they accused him of owing the state over two million dollars in taxes. He just recently lost the case. He is a true agitator and living proof that art, now in cahoots with social media, can be a powerful tool of resistance.