Ai Weiwei speaks out on film
As Chinese artist hit with £1.5m tax fine, "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry" goes on general release in US
By Iain Millar. Features, Issue 237, July-August 2012
Published online: 24 July 2012
Alison Klayman’s “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” goes on general release in on 27 July in the US, having played the festival circuit to great acclaim. It’s a project born from a lucky break, after Klayman was hired to make a promotional film for a gallery show of the artist’s work in Beijing in 2008. “I’d say: ‘Do you mind if we keep filming?’” she told The Art Newspaper last year. “Eventually, he introduced me to someone [saying]: ‘This is Alison; she’s been around forever… filming me,’ so then I knew I was in.
”The film was in post-production when Ai was arrested by the Chinese police in April 2011, meaning a structural rethink and a lot of extra publicity. The backstory is efficiently told, although it’s familiar enough, especially given that Ai is not backward in coming forward when talking about himself. It is well known that his father was a poet who was exiled during the late 1950s, that Ai studied at the Beijing Film Academy with the director Zhang Yimou and that the artist spent more than a decade in New York.
The urgency in Klayman’s film is not just in Ai’s work, as striking and hard-hitting as it can be, or in his persona, as engaging as it is: it’s in the depiction of his anger with a political system that denies truths and quashes dissent. Again and again, he returns to projects that draw attention to the children who died in collapsing schools after the earthquake in Sichuan in 2008, including the painstaking efforts made by his team to ascertain as many of the children’s names as possible and the construction of Remembering, 2009, an installation made using children’s backpacks. Ai confronts a policeman who he thinks beat him, causing a life-threatening brain injury, when he was arrested in 2009, while supporting another campaigner on behalf of the families of the children who died.
This is a good enough film about Ai the individual, but as an adjunct to and extension of his highlighting of the iniquities of the Chinese regime, it’s a powerful piece of international propaganda. Last year, when Ai was released on bail after more than two months in detention, he was reticent in front of the cameras, citing a stipulation that he must not say very much to the media. Klayman’s film means his voice is still being widely heard.
Russian-style art activism: “Zavtra”
While China makes little, if any, pretence to democracy, Russia does operate under a democratic system, though many would argue that it’s barely functional, with an alliance of the super-wealthy and the political elite ensuring that power remains concentrated in the hands of the few. An extreme reaction to the disaffection and anger that political disillusionment brings is laid out in stark and unsettling terms in Andrey Gryazev’s “Zavtra” (tomorrow), which caused a stir at the Berlin International Film Festival earlier this year, has just made its Russian debut in Moscow and is due to be shown at festivals in Armenia, Poland and Australia over the summer (with a date to be confirmed at this autumn’s London International Film Festival).
Gryazev attached himself to—effectively moving in with—the Russian art activist group Voina, members of which were held in custody after their arrest for tipping over a police car in Moscow in 2010 (the charges were later dropped). Gryazev and his lightweight video camera were supposedly there, as he was when the group managed to paint a giant phallus on a rising Moscow road bridge.
“Zavtra” comes with a warning that alludes to their supporter Banksy’s “Exit Through the Gift Shop”, however. “This film does not claim to be historically accurate,” it says at the start. “Some or all of the events depicted here may or may not have happened in reality.” It’s a statement that gives pause for thought when we see the group shoplifting on a near-industrial scale, attempting to remove a cross-street banner that promotes a name change for the police by using fencing posts fastened together with gaffer tape, and, especially, in the constant presence of Kasper, the toddler son of prominent—and almost constantly arguing—group members Oleg Vorotnikov (aka Vor, or thief) and Natalia Sokol (aka Koza, or goat). Kasper often seems to play the part of a human shield, his pushchair or carrying harness being placed between his parents and irate shopkeepers after a theft or being deployed at a demonstration where they are both arrested and Kasper is taken away by the police.
Whether you find the group convincing as a voice of radical opposition (Vorotnikov quotes the Russian revolutionary poet Osip Mandelstam and calls for “death by knife for the cops” while urging other members to “think historically”) or consider them irresponsible and dangerous anarchists who would replace order with chaos, what is undeniable is the effectiveness of Gryazev’s grainy, low-light, low-budget film in describing a committed element of the Moscow counterculture.
Getting to the Olympics by stealth: “Swandown”
Ai Weiwei signalled his protest against the 2008 Olympic Games by publicly disassociating himself from the Beijing National Stadium, known as the “Bird’s Nest”, which he helped to design. In the run-up to this summer’s Games, the artist and film-maker Andrew Kötting and the writer Iain Sinclair approached the Olympic Stadium by stealth in “Swandown”—in a two-person pedalo in the shape of a giant swan. Last autumn, they began their journey in Hastings, on the south coast, before heading inland at Rye and making their way to the east London site largely by inland waterway, through the county of Kent and into the capital. A perfect act of absurdist, very English whimsy, it’s part travelogue, part visual and audio scrapbook of an unlikely route that (almost) ends with the sight of security guards frowning down at Kötting as he steers the giant bird along the canal that passes the Olympic site. It’s a subtle subversion of a steamroller event and a life-affirming piece of art.
"Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry" is due to open on 27 July in these cinemas:
IFC Center, New York, Lincoln Plaza Cinema, New York, Embarcadero Center Cinema, San Francisco, Kabuki 9, San Francisco, E Street, Washington, D.C.
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