Why do tyrants fear artists so much that they must oppress them? And why do artists persevere, despite the danger, in creating and disseminating their works? The director Jafar Panahi, for example, though sentenced by the Iranian government to six years of imprisonment and banned from making movies for 20 years, filmed “This Is Not a Film” in his apartment while awaiting an appeal and smuggled it into the 2011 Cannes Film Festival — in a cake.
Such an artist, too, is China’s Ai Weiwei, 56, the subject of Andreas Johnsen’s dismaying, necessarily fragmentary, covertly filmed documentary.
Ai is an art superstar (ArtReview named him the world’s most powerful artist in 2011) whose Dadaist spirit can be seen in works ranging from the design of the National Stadium in Beijing (known as the Bird’s Nest) for the 2008 Olympics to such monumental installations as 2010’s “Sunflower Seeds,” in which he filled a giant hall in London’s Tate Modern with millions of porcelain replicas of the seeds, each individually enameled by volunteers. Not content to enjoy his success while ignoring the injustices of his country, he turned his celebrity clout to political ends, in his artwork, on his blog, and on Twitter.
His life and work was documented in a previous film, Alison Klayman’s “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” (2012). In it Ai seems a cross between Michael Moore, Marcel Duchamp, and Gandhi. It ends with him taken away in 2011 to serve 81 days of imprisonment. His bold closing statement to followers: “Don’t retreat; retweet!”
He appears a much different man at the beginning of Johnsen’s film, which picks up where Klayman left off. Seemingly chastened by his ordeal, he meekly tells reporters that the conditions of his “parole” won’t allow him to speak. He can’t do interviews or use the Internet. He’s often seen in empty rooms; head in hands, miserable and melancholy — like a broken man.
But gradually the old defiance and whimsy emerge. Explaining the shoddy case the government has trumped up against him, in which they accuse his studio, called Fake Design, of bilking the state of $2.5 million, he says wryly, “It’s a fake case. It’s a fake case about a Fake Company. But the Fake Company is a real company and the fake case is a real case, but it’s fake, it’s fabricated.”
Ai’s resistance is not limited to private wordplay. He and a friend track down the location of a police surveillance team observing him. They confront them with bemusement; and when the abashed police drive off, Ai and his friend tail them in a high-speed chase, until cooler heads prevail and they turn back. But Ai has stolen the butt-filled ashtray the police left behind, which he subsequently submits to an art show.
Later, his bemused demeanor shatters when he charges at the police surrounding his studio after they bruise a young photographer while trying to confiscate his camera. The police back down, but it’s no big deal. They’ve got Ai silenced; he has no power or influence or means to express himself any more. Or so they think.
In fact, Ai has been secretly working on a project called “S.A.C.R.E.D.” He and his crew have cast miniature, meticulously detailed fiberglass reproductions of six scenes from his incarceration, during which he was held in a tiny cell, alone except for two silent guards watching him 24 hours a day. By devious means he sends “S.A.C.R.E.D.” to the 2013 Venice Biennale. In April it was part of his exhibition “Ai Weiwei: According to What?” at the Brooklyn Museum in New York. As this stark but rousing film demonstrates, it’s not living well, but making art that is the best revenge.Peter Keough can be reached at email@example.com.