All eyes were on China during the Olympic Games in 2008. The spectacle drew back the curtain on the country and was widely seen as the inauguration of a new, open era. Most eyes were on the centrepiece of the country’s capital, the National Stadium in Beijing, affectionately known as the Bird’s Nest because of its architecture. According to the artistic consultant involved in its construction, it was intended to ‘embody the Olympic spirit of “fair competition”.’ That consultant was celebrated Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.
It must have seemed like a good idea to ask him to contribute. He was known in the arts and design world for establishing the experimental artists’ Beijing East Village and FAKE Design, co-founding the China Art Archives & Warehouse (CAAW), curating the Jinhua Architecture Park and along with HHF Architects designing a lauded private New York residence for Christopher Tsai.
Then the day before the Opening Ceremony, Ai published an opinion explaining that he would boycott the commemoration, declaring:
‘Almost 60 years after the founding of the People’s Republic, we still live under autocratic rule without universal suffrage. We do not have an open media even though freedom of expression is more valuable than life itself. ‘
It was this moment that brought Ai Weiwei’s views to the world’s attention, prophesying his path to becoming the country’s prankster provocateur and celebrity thorn in the government side. It was also when Kiki Fung, a program manager at BIFF, started looking more closely at Ai Weiwei.
‘When he became more and more politically active, and was investigating the [Sichuan] earthquake, I just found out more about him,’ Fung tells us. A prolific creator, Ai isn’t merely an artist or architect, he’s also a writer, photographer and filmmaker. After reading interviews with him, Fung discovered that Ai had produced numerous video works and documentaries.
‘He’s very well known in the art world, but not necessarily at film festivals or with film audiences, though everybody knows him as an artist or an architect or political activist.’
A student of the Beijing Film Academy, cinema was actually one of the first artistic endeavours undertaken by the man who would later be ranked first in ArtReview’s Power 100. It’s not surprising this aspect of the creative chameleon could be overlooked. Though he’s produced revered works such as Sunflowers, and Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads, Ai is just as celebrated for blogging and Tweeting, while his activism and its consequences keep him squarely in the sights of the media. Despite the censorship of his Internet activity and periods of detention, his online mastery has made him an unlikely darling of the digital age.
It’s these disparate parts of Ai Weiwei that make him such a fascinating figure. Though he’s smashed priceless Han dynasty artefacts in the name of art, his 110,000 twitter followers perhaps know him better for posting pictures of his blood-clotted cranium pre-surgery. He’s plastered across t-shirts, his bruised visage an icon of injustice that has gone as global as Gangnam. So stellar is his fame and notoriety, he’s even had an asteroid named after him.
Perhaps the protean nature of Ai Weiwei’s personality and practice is why Fung dedicated an entire section of the BIFF program to him and his films. In order to secure them, including the world premiere of Ping’an Yueqing, Fung travelled to Beijing to visit the artist during his latest stoush with the government over taxes.
Ai’s tax problems are largely seen as farcical, fallout from his investigation into schoolchildren killed in the Sichuan earthquake and his suggestion that government corruption contributed to the instability of buildings. This is chronicled in the film So Sorry, which is screening at BIFF. Since then he has been detained and allegedly assaulted by police, had his passport confiscated as well as being ‘disappeared’ for 81 days in 2011.
Because he can’t travel, Fung visited Ai and the artist won’t be attending BIFF as a guest. Apart from discussing showing his films at the festival, Fung says that they spoke about art, life and politics, mentioning that their time was frequently interrupted by phone calls from Ai’s lawyers, as well as government officials concerning his legal woes. We asked how he seemed during her visit.
‘He’s very open and cheerful. I think he has a way of looking at what he’s suffering as an irony and is able to turn it into humour. When he’s facing lawsuits about tax evasion, this is just like something that can happen in a Kafka novel – how absurd it is – sometimes he just makes fun of his own situation,’ Fung explains.
‘House arrest, travel restrictions, surveillance, stopping phone service, cutting the Internet connection. What we can still do is greet the crazy motherland once again,’ he Tweeted in 2010.
Despite appreciating the surreal nature of his situation, Ai recognises he’s not the sole recipient of such treatment, or official brutality. His latest film, Ping’an Yueqing aims to uncover the circumstances surrounding the death of Qian Yunhui, a village leader and dissident found on Christmas Day under the wheel of a truck. Through the prism of this one event, Ai explores the corruption, confusion and injustice rampant throughout China.
Ping’an Yueqing is an interesting addition to Ai’s work as he usually uses his own experience with officials to investigate broader issues. ‘In those more political documentaries [like So Sorry and Disturbing the Peace], he is the subject himself and he’s always penetrating right into the system and exposing its flaws or weaknesses, the absurdity and lack of humanity,’ says Fung.
Throughout Ping’an Yueqing, the viewer never glimpses Ai, the celebrity concealed behind the oft-manic and secretive camera work. ‘For him… making documentaries is different from creating other artworks,’ she notes. ‘He doesn’t want to make it too stylistic… it’s distracting and has a personal stamp. He believes as documentary it has to be the most direct and unquestionable stare. Although he’s presenting opinions in Ping’an Yueqing, he’s not taking any sides.’
That’s not to say that Ping’an Yueqing doesn’t have artistic merit. Though it features opinion, assumption and hearsay from sources including government officials, independent journalists and villagers, there is little clarification surrounding Qian’s death. Indeed, as the film progresses, the issues are further obfuscated, making viewing an exhaustive and almost frustrating experience.
‘This is precisely the affect that he wants to bring about. He believes that only when information is presented this way can the audience grasp the true complexity of these issues. By doing so, the audience experiences the same perplexity as those that are involved,’ she reasons.
Though Chinese audiences will only be able to view the film through underground screenings at independent galleries, community groups and universities, there’s also a practical reason to remove himself from the frame – further persecution.
‘The fact the government disappeared him, and then afterwards continued to go after him through various charges, sends a signal to other activists that even if you are well known it does not really protect you,’ Wang Songlian of the Chinese Human Rights Defenders Network told The Guardian. ‘On the other hand, the way he turned it around was very clever, and I think activists have been energised.’
His detention brought worldwide media attention and support. The way Ai turned it around was by making himself more than his art and films. He became a t-shirt, a product against oppression and a brand for justice (an interesting inversion of his appropriation of Chinese antiques). Guardian journalist Tania Branigan summed it up succinctly when she wrote, ‘He has become, to many, the face of human rights in China: more a symbol than a person.’
Ai has a sense of this notion himself, stating in the same article: “It’s never about me. [My supporters] use me as a mark for themselves to recognize their own form of life: I become their medium.’
But even this is a somewhat simple classification and Ai Weiwei is anything but easily classified. Fung’s has constructed the Ai Weiwei program at BIFF to examine the intricacy of the artist. ‘There is a variety of both style and content in his documentaries. I tried to balance those that are more critical with the others that are more artistic, so I hope [Australian audiences] get to understand him more as an artist, more than just an activist,’ she says.