A Closer Look At Ai Weiwei
The 91-minute film will premiere in Los Angeles and New York on July 27. Directed by Alison Klayman, it is driven by Ai’s unique characters and humor, bringing the man and his life into focus. A big part of his life is about conflicts with the Chinese authority starting at his quitting designing the Bird’s Nest—the center piece for the Beijing Olympics. The film gave a very personal approach with interviews of the artist’s family, who seldom comes to the media’s spotlight, but seems proud and supportive.
“He’s just himself,” said artist Chen Danqing, a friend of Ai’s. This pretty much concludes who Ai is. He quickly became one of China’s most controversial and outspoken artists, and its most celebrated missing person when he disappeared in April 2011 into police custody for three months. Since 2008, Ai has come to criticize the Olympic games and the policy of the Chinese government concerning the games and thus has distanced himself from the project. He is dubbed trouble by the authority who shut down his blog in 2009. His critiques of the regime have ranged from playful photos of raising his middle finger to Tiananmen Square to the investigation of the undercover death toll of schoolchildren who died in the Sichuan earthquake.
The film starts with Ai’s experimentalism of art by showing him breaking a valuable Han Dynasty vase and repainting the thousand-year-old antiques with a Coca Cola logo. From the revolution in art and tradition, the spirit carries on to his activism for free speech in China. Klayman somewhat compared Ai’s undying spirit to his father, famous Chinese poet Ai Qing, who was severely persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, a dark age when people were easily persecuted as anti-party or socialism with no trials or well-founded reasons. Klayman also attributed Ai’s rebellion to his 10-year stay in New York, where, Ai said in the film, he had a taste of freedom and would not go back.
Being one of the most censored men, Ai never fails to draw attention to himself by engaging in audacious actions and frantic participation in social media. Branded as an internet hero, Ai didn’t know how to type before 2005. In an interview in 2009, Ai said he didn’t know what he would post before he started. Mood was the only thing he followed. “Once my inspiration comes, I just can’t stop writing,” Ai mentioned lightly, “For one day, I can post 30 articles on my blog.”
In the film, Ai’s conflict with the police kicked off with the surveillance cameras around his house and his confrontation with the plain-cloth police inspecting nearby. It escalated when he was beaten in the head by an officer in Chengdu during his trip to testify for Tan Zuoren, a fellow investigator and activist . Ai publicly challenged the authority by immediately posting the attack on twitter and filing lawsuits against the officer in multiple places one year later. He said we couldn’t just say the system was bad, we had to go through the judicial process to prove what was wrong.
His mother Gao Ying was weeping in the film, worrying about her son’s safety. But Ai simply replied, “It’s not necessary.”
The most symbolic art work of Ai’s is the 100 million ceramic sunflower seeds. Eight million was acquired by Tate Modern, London in 2010, which symbolize the new idea of the younger generation in China—the seeds of change and improvement.
Charmed by Ai’s provocative activism, Klayman said in the director's statement that she made the film to showcase a “creative and principled artist, willing to make calculated risks to push society to grapple with its own shortcomings.” She hopes this film could impact and inspire people to reflect upon their willingness to risk to express themselves for a better future.
One thing for sure, the Chinese authority won’t like it, who was depicted as an abusive power in the film. Ai said it was still important for the less than 0.1 percent of Chinese people who managed to jump over the Great Fired Wall to access the film online.
“The documentary is about reality,” Ai said in an interview in January 2012, “It’s about the reality that has been existing in this piece of land for decades.”