This documentary tracks his artistic path, including a formative stay in New York City that amped up his oppositional tendencies. It tracks him on a return visit to New York as well as shows in Germany and especially the preparation and opening of his triumph at Tate Modern in 2011-12. All the time, this trickster was making the authorities progressively steam as he became an ever more public lightning rod of opposition to the Chinese regime. From surveillance, harassment and eventually jailing and taking his passport, Ai Wei Wei has been under increasing and usually unpredictable pressure. He continues to work and produce, never knowing where or when another attack or arbitrary change might come from. The pressure on him must certainly take its toll after so many years. On one occasion, he was beaten during an arrest and suffered what could have been a fatal brain hemorrhage. Of course, this is now part of his artistic work.
Shortly after watching this documentary in fall 2013, I visited his According to What? show at the Art Gallery of Ontario. He also had an installation at Nuit Blanche 2013 in Toronto. Ai’s art is largely conceptual, something for which I am still acquiring a taste. The work I appreciate the most is when he uses traditional Chinese woodworking techniques to both critique the Chinese economic policies and suggest his love for his country. Wrapping it up in a trickster’s sense of humour always adds the spice of ambiguity, leaving me questioning whether I have really understood the message. The most moving piece of the show, and shown extensively in the movie, is his tribute to the children who died in poorly built schools during the Sichuan earthquake in 2008. Ai collected literally tons of mangled steel reinforcement bars from these schools, had them straightened and now installs them on floors in large rectangles which are wavy and also suggest the meeting of tectonic plates. Beside this installation is a wall covered with the names of 5,000+ children who died along with a recording of people reading the names of the children. This is a moving tribute but most of his other works are less direct and can be interpreted in various ways.
In much of his work, there is explicit anger, shown in such works as his series of photos of famous world locations with him giving the finger in the foreground, now become his signature image. Or his relentless tweeting and filming of the harassment of the authorities that he undertakes. He also uses expletives in many of his works in both Chinese and English.
The movie could also be called A Picture of the Artist as World Famous Dissident. And while he might like such a title, the reality of his daily life and artistic production under unfavourable circumstances leaves me admiring his commitment and strength of character. Fortunately, I don’t have to wonder if I could function under such pressure. He is one of the most famous living artists in the world for a reason.