Who’s Afraid of Ai Weiwei: A Short Documentary

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 rep­re­sent­edKlay­man 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.

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