Use the phrase “conceptual artist” around me and you’re likely to get an involuntary eye roll. It’s not that I think that there is no such thing, though I’d be hard-pressed to think of some concept art that I found really moving, it’s that “conceptual art” is most certainly a refuge for scoundrels.
You don’t need any particular talent, just “ideas” and people to actually carry them out. And in this documentary about Chinese artist “Ai Weiwei”, that’s exactly what he does: He takes his ideas and has his many minions execute them under his guidance.
But a funny thing happens when you take an ‘80s avant-garde hipster from the streets of New York and transplant him to China: All the ridiculous crap he’s spewing about “government oppression” and “freedom of expression” becomes not just true, but positively heroic.
Flipping off D.C.? Meh.
Flipping of Beijing? When you live in China? That’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fish.
Ai Weiwei is the son of Chinese Poet Ai Qing, who joined the Communist party and then got re-educated during one of those purges the Left is so fond of. Ai Weiwei bummed around New York through the ’80s and early ’90s, until he returned to China at the end of his father’s life.
Back in China, he started publishing underground art books. Now, in America, “underground” is kind of a quaint thing. It’s all rebellious and edgy without actually being dangerous. In China, it’s genuinely dangerous. You couldn’t buy these books in stores. Instead, people sort of lurked on street corners with a sort of “Hey, buddy, wanna buy some art?” come-ons.
Weiwei gained enough notoriety internationally to secure a place of prominence in the design of the Beijing Olympics, which he quickly denounced and distanced himself from. (And possibly shamed Spielberg into distancing himself from, as well.)
The documentary, while about the artist, is largely focused on Weiwei’s “citizen investigation” of the Sicuhuan earthquake, in which thousands of Chinese schoolchildren were killed, perhaps due to the shoddy “tofu” construction of the government schools. Beijing, of course, wanted to bury the story, literally and figuratively, and Weiwei sent people out to the villages to investigate and collect names of the dead.
It’s also about the government’s ham-fisted approach to silencing him.
Weiwei is a master of the blog and Twitter and he uses these media (especially Twitter @aiww) to communicate things the government would rather not have communicated. You can debate how dangerous the Chinese government is—the movie refers to other dissidents who simply vanish—but not really how dangerous the Chinese people think it is.
We see a meal eaten out in public, where fans sit down with Weiwei (knowing they’re being watched), disrupted by cops.We see cops bust into a hotel room where Weiwei is staying and hear a scuffle that seems to result in Ai Weiwei being physically struck in the head, enough to where a CAT scan done in Munich a week later reveals serious trauma.
We see the kind of comical stupidity of Chinese bureaucracy (bureaucracy is the same all over) as Weiwei goes through the approved channels to demonstrate how the system is broken, and the less comical (but still sort of laughable) brutality of a system that is at best indifferent to the thuggery within its ranks. And we finally see as the Chinese government makes Weiwei vanish for three months, only to justify this with a “tax evasion” accusation.
Of course, one never knows the full story, but one also isn’t inclined to give the Chinese government any benefit of the doubt (unless one is Tom Friedman). They are stupid to fight someone who is both very charming and also very self-effacing. (He’s dismissive of his own talents and bravery, and it seems very genuine.)
An interesting part of this story is that Ai Weiwei has a son. A very young boy that he had with “a friend”. The Brit interviewing him brings this up and says something to the effect of “Well, you’re an artist, so it’s okay.” And Weiwei allows that it’s not okay, that his wife isn’t cool with it, and is generally embarrassed by the situation—while also very clearly adoring his son.
He’s not looking for an excuse for his bad behavior. And now he has a son which, one speculates, gives the Chinese government leverage to use against him. He seems much cowed after his long stay with the officials.
But it doesn’t stick. Although he talks about not being able to talk, he’s still out there, tweeting and being a gadfly on the dragon’s ass.
And that’s an encouraging thing, as is the fact that when he’s hauled off, his followers continue his work. And they seem to be growing in numbers and boldness.
So, yeah, while “conceptual artist” may conjure up images of effete New York pantywaists and genuinely strange weirdos like Yoko Ono, in Ai Weiwei you have a rare example of conceptual artist bad-assery.
The Boy was impressed.