Sunday, July 29, 2012
There are several ways to make an artist documentary. You can film the artist creating or discussing their works, you can do an exposé revealing the artist's personality and personal life, or you can present the broader social context and the artist's involvement in issue that transcend art. Three recent documentaries illustrate each of these styles: Gerhard Richter Painting is about the process of making art, Marina Abromavic: The Artist is Present is a Geraldo-style character portrait, and Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is mostly about politics. Alison Klayman's film follows Weiwei as he takes on the Chinese government. The film packs a powerful punch, though we learn little about the artist's works or methods of creation. Moreover, the political issues are presented with little nuance, allowing Western viewers to gasp in horror at Chinese oppression of free expression, while hearing little more than a sentence of dissent (articulated by a New Yorker journalist sympathetic to Weiwei's position). That is forgivable, though, because Weiwei's battles, from tragic to trifling, do seem to fall on the right side of justice, and he is a rare reminder that artists can have an impact, while also producing work that earns a place in art history independent of its moral message. Weiwei's charismatic personality shines in this film, both arrogant and humble, serious and prankster, strong and fragile. The titular epithet, never sorry, speaks to the artist's unflinching resolve, which is presented in almost every frame.
Weiwei is presented as more of an activist than an artist. His effort to gain recognition for the children who died in the Sichuan earthquake is movingly documented. This has been a theme is his work, but here it eclipses other things he's done, so that, for example, when taken to a major retrospective in Munich, we see an earthquake-themed facade being installed, but little on other works, shown in passing. One exceptation is a neolithic vase, which he defaced with a Coca-Cola logo (left), extending earlier work (above), in which such antiques were willfully destroyed--a chilling echo of the cultural revolution. A bit more attention is dedicated to the photogenic sea of sunflower seeds, which he commissioned artisans to sculpt and paint using traditional methods. They are seen (above right), filling the ground floor of the Tate Modern. We also get a glimpse of Weiwei's relationship to other artists, including Tehching Hsieh, He Yunchang, and rock musician, Zuoxiao Zuzhou. Women artists, including Weiwei's partner Lu Qing, are given less air time. With this supporting cast, we are able to see that Weiwei's political activism has progressed in tandem with his efforts to support the Chinese art scene.
One nice feature of Klayman's apotheosis of a film is her emphasis on social media. Weiwei has made extensive use of blogging and Twitter to bring attention to his causes, and, in so doing has shown the power of these resources to promote awareness and to mobilize large numbers of people. Weiwei compulsively tweets his encounters with police and government officials. He watches them as they watch him, and the world watches these reflexive watchings. Perhaps in this perverse tangle of spectatorship, we can see that Weiwei's activism is not separate from his art, but an exemplification of it.