look: don’t call him a dissident

The lives of Chinese artists are marked by remarkable multiplicity and confusion, change and disorder, doubt and destructiveness, a loss of self and the emptiness that follows, hopelessness and its attendant freedom, shamelessness and its accompanying pleasures.
– Ai Weiwei’s Blog

I had the pleasure of seeing the fantastic documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry at the IFC Center this week, and writing a roundup of books on the artist & his work for Biographile, a beautifully curated new site focused on biography and memoir. Before going in I didn’t know much about Ai Weiwei, who strides through this film like some kind of ancient statue come to life, and frankly, I expected it to be a worthy but not especially fun hour and a half.  I couldn’t have been more wrong. Here’s the trailer:

Internationalism and global communication are Ai Weiwei’s obsessions, which burst forth in his embrace, in 2006, of the internet, especially his blog. The blog was shut down in 2009 since he had begun using it mainly as a clearing-house for information about the children killed in the Sichuan earthquake the year before—a subject on which the government has been silent, harassing activists who are trying to uncover the truth. Despite his arrest and 81-day detention in 2011, Ai Weiwei returned to Twitter (follow him in English here). He has become an obsessive documentary-maker in his own right, with assistants and devotees who follow him on his information-gathering missions.

Far removed from the cliché of the conceptual artist as out-of-touch elitist, he is seen as a spokesperson and genuine advocate for the ordinary individual in China. His work Sunflower Seeds at Tate Modern in 2010 exemplified this simple impulse: a hundred million porcelain “seeds”, striped by hand by a huge team of artisans from Jingdezhen, historic capital of China’s porcelain industry, spread on the floor of the vast Turbine Hall of the gallery to form a thick carpet which, when viewed in close up, reveals the diversity of its individual parts.

The installation of this exhibition forms a key part of the film, which also covers his 2009 retrospective in Munich, and his Kafkaesque battle for due process after he is beaten and detained on a visit to Chengdu to testify on behalf of an earthquake activist. That he is still free to practice his art (albeit under constant surveillance) is an important reminder of how far China has come in granting some license to its artists—but his experiences also make clear how far off real freedom still remains.


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