|Image: Artificial Eye|
We tend to sneer a bit at the idea of artists as political commentators, and we will freely admit that the bulk of our social media time is spent discussing movies or talking about what we had for dinner. This film is a timely reminder that it is often the job of the artist to speak their mind about the society in which they live, and just how far social networks can reach.
The outspoken Ai Weiwei is one of the most famous artists in China today. He’s also constantly lobbying for greater transparency in the Chinese government. Alison Klayman’s documentary shows how, from the Sichwan earthquake onwards, Ai Weiwei has used Twitter to expose how the government and the police can bully citizens and conceal facts from the population, and how that has put him in danger.
Ai Weiwei is a fascinating figure, a man whose reputation in the art world is actually matched by his reputation for activism, and the two clearly overlap frequently. In the past his work has included a Han dynasty vase that he painted over with the Coca-Cola logo and photographs of him giving the finger to historical buildings. After the Chinese government refused to release the full number of deaths in the Sichuan earthquake, he made a documentary about the disaster focusing on the shocking number of children who had died due to so-called “tofu-skin” construction. But for someone who clearly has so much anger and purpose, he’s outwardly a very calm person who’s philosophical about the chances he’s taking.
Klayman does show some of his development as an artist, with discussion of his work in New York as a young man to his return to Beijing, where he became a figurehead of Chinese modern art. Some of his contemporaries are interviewed, who clearly hold him in the highest regard. Perhaps more impressively, we see how he has reached a legion of young fans and admirers through Twitter, organising flash events (in this documentary they’re mostly dinners) that are often swiftly cracked down on. He does remain something of an enigma. His personal life is discussed briefly and there’s some touching footage of him with his family and his baby son.
It’s also often tense, with the key moment coming when police officers enter his hotel room at night. One officer struck Ai Weiwei, who recorded the event and tweeted as it happened, as well as the operation he had to have not long after as a result of the blow to his head.
The film never really gets under the skin of its subject but Klayman’s more interested in following and observing. He’s a totally magnetic figure, this calm, witty artist who provokes so much trouble.
An engrossing, entertaining documentary about an enigmatic but passionate man.