Ever since denouncing his own consultancy on China's National Stadium as the "fake smile" of propaganda for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the artist Ai Weiwei has been having some problems with authority. Last year he was detained for nearly three months, then put under house arrest until just a couple of weeks ago, whereupon he wrote in London's Guardian that "China has not established the rule of law and if there is a power above the law there is no social justice." He still hasn't got his passport back.
Of course this only stokes Ai's celebrity, which has a lot to do with positioning himself as an artful antagonist to injustice. At heart he's a concepts guy, and his biggest concepts -- transparency and persistence -- seem very useful to the study of an ascendant China at its historic crossroads between repressive hermeticism and gluttonous freedom. Fortunately Ai has been keeping videographers on hand to record his various agitations, and a handful of the resulting documentaries screen for four consecutive Sundays this month at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.
Fairytale, courtesy Fake Design.
Tracking the legacy of a tragic rampage that left six security officers dead, One Recluse peers into a morass of highly dubious state-controlled jurisprudence. Disturbing the Peace, and its followup, So Sorry, involve a lawyer investigating the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which claimed hundreds of children's lives because their school buildings weren't safe. The lawyer's quest for justice drew enmity from the state, which drew Ai's documentary interest, which drew further enmity onto him, which drew further documentary interest. The measure of his tenacity isn't that he recorded himself getting roughed up by cops; it's that he recorded himself returning later to endure the bureaucratic tedium of filing official complaints.
Fairytale, courtesy Fake Design.
In these pieces, Ai's unfortunately regular routine of being watched and brusquely confronting his watchers becomes a wry and even wistful sort of performance. Obviously he has considered how attention from a camera might be applied to both artistic and authoritarian purposes, with illuminating but also deranging consequences in either case. More broadly, he also seems eager to investigate individual responses to overwhelming group dynamics -- often by gathering crowds of people into de facto art installations. For Fairytale, Ai invited a thousand and one average Chinese citizens to visit the German hometown of the Brothers Grimm. For Ordos 100, he convened a hundred architects from all over the world to plan a city in Mongolia. "We are not interested in just producing architecture," Ai says early on. "We are more interested in human conceptual exchange." With the project likened by its participants to a zoo, a listless UN meeting, and the Surrealist parlor game of Exquisite Corpse (and with Ai's narrative framework playing out in a manner not unlike the average aspirational-contest show on today's reality TV), it seems telling that we see a lot of money counted, but no actual buildings built.
Conceptually speaking, again, it's as if he sees globalization itself as just one more authority in need of a thorough challenge. And clearly he has the appropriate personal resources to pull that off. As an artist, Ai has gone in for other big blockbusters besides the Olympics, like when he filled Tate Modern's Turbine Hall with a hundred million porcelain sunflower seeds in 2010. But maybe more important is how he's redeemed the allure of social networking -- as something politically serious, yet rebellious. It's exciting and interesting to follow someone on Twitter who's on it because his own government ordered him not to be. And if his tweets are interesting, how can his documentaries not be?
Documentaries by Ai Weiwei screen July 8, 15, 22, and 29, 2012, at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. For tickets and more information, visit ybca.org.