The work of dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is monumental, as is the man’s fearless and outspoken personality. Recently, while standing under the circular display of massive bronze animal heads in Ai’s Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads at Washington, DC’s Hirshhorn Museum, I found myself wishing I could meet him. The next best thing, I guess, is to see candid footage of his life and work, which is what you find in Who’s Afraid of Ai Weiwei, the short documentary (above) from PBS’s Frontline.
Begun in 2008 by 24-year-old filmmaker Alison Klayman, Who’s Afraid of Ai Weiwei captures the artist immediately before his principled and costly stand against the Beijing Olympics (which he helped to design) and the oppressive police state he claimed it represented. Klayman followed Ai for two years and shot 200 hours of footage, some of which became the short film above. The rest has been edited and released as a feature-length film called Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, which has picked up prizes at Sundance, the Berlin International Film Festival, and the Human Rights Watch Film Festival.
Ai is unique among his contemporaries in the art world for his willingness to confront social issues not only through visual media but also through media commentary. As Klayman puts it, “Weiwei the artist had become as provocative with his keyboard, typing out a daily diatribe against local corruption and government abuses” on his blog. Ai claims his political involvement is “very personal.” “If you don’t speak out,” he says above, “if you don’t clear your mind, then who are you?” He has written editorials for English-language publications on why he withdrew his support from the Beijing Games and what he thought of last Friday’s opening ceremony in London (he liked it). And, of course, he’s become a bit of a star on Twitter, using it to relentlessly critique China’s deep economic divides and suppression of free speech.
But for all his notoriety as an activist and his well-known internet persona, Ai’s sculpture and photography speaks for itself. Unfortunately, due to his arrest and imprisonment by Chinese authorities in 2011, he was unable to attend the opening of Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads in LA, and he is still under constant surveillance and not permitted to leave the country. But, true to form, none of these setbacks have kept him from speaking out, about his politics and his art. In the short video below, he discusses the significance of Zodiac Heads, his most recent monumental vision.
Josh Jones is a doctoral candidate in English at Fordham University and a co-founder and former managing editor of Guernica / A Magazine of Arts and Politics.