Saturday, Nov. 24, 2012

The Danger of Art (Or is it Art?)

Chinese Activist Ai Weiwei Speaks Out in Documentary

By David Luhrssen
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Alison Klayman’s documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry opens with scenes of cats playing inside Ai’s studio with a comment from the Chinese artist: only one of his 40 cats has learned to open doors while others simply watch. Sure enough, one of his cats nudges doorknobs and escapes to the courtyard. Ai wants to be like that cat in a society where many doors remain shut.

Ai could have had a comfortable career as an artist in China, especially after his contribution to Beijing’s emblematic “Bird’s Nest” Olympic stadium. But he bit his master’s hand, posting blog comments 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, in one incident, police kicked down his door and clubbed his head. He posted hospital photos online and continued the struggle.

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (out on DVD) is an inspiring depiction of an activist who became one of the sharpest thorns under the regime’s feet. Composed of a running series of interviews with Ai and his associates, Never Sorry presents a picture of contemporary China’s ill-disguised dark side. Behind the glittering towers of Shanghai, the burgeoning and materialistic middle class and a muscular economy that expanded in the face of a global recession squats a bullying regime with no respect for human dignity. During much of the time when Klayman shot her film, Ai operated in the precarious zone familiar to such Soviet dissidents as Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn. He was too famous on the international stage to clamp in prison or kill, but too dangerous to remain unchecked.

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. Bullying only stiffens his resolve.

Whether or how Ai can continue his campaign is in doubt by the conclusion of Never Sorry. In 2011 he was taken into custody for alleged financial improprieties. All the tweeting in the world and even a speech by Hillary Clinton had little effect. Released on bail, Ai grew eerily reticent with the press; he was banned from the Internet and slapped with a $2.4 million fine for back taxes. The movie ends, but one suspects Ai isn’t finished.

 

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