It may seem unfair to compare one of the most renowned artists and activists in China –and the world– to aspiring American painters, photographers, and sculptors. But the contrast between Ai Weiwei, the subject of a new documentary that screened last week in Williamsburg, and the dozen or so Brooklyn artists whose work I saw in Williamsburg and Greenpoint the prior weekend, could not be more severe. In the eight days of music, film, and art that comprised the Northside Festival, the documentary about Ai and the studio tour spoke to both the possibilities and pitfalls of contemporary art.
While I enjoyed the Northside Art as a casual fan and relished the chance to skulk inside apartments, studios, galleries, and warehouses in North Brooklyn, seeing the film Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry a few days latermade me question the art’s depth. The epiphany reminded me of how I questioned Mexican food in New York after visiting Texas and California. (Stay tuned for the actual Mexico trip). In the film, which packed the house at Union Docs on June 21, Ai comes across as a master conceptual artist and tireless crusader for social justice. While his work is not always literal, it always communicates a clear message. In retrospect, the Northside artists made mostly abstract work that focused on color, light, and shadow, but did not convey much deeper meaning. If Ai’s work looked outward, his Brooklyn brethren looked decidedly inward.
If artists doubt they can learn from Ai’s work, they might consider his accomplishments and recent accolades. In 2010, ArtReview ranked him #13 in their list of the 100 most powerful artists. In 2011, he was a runner up in Time magazine’s Person of the Year award. This year, the Human Rights foundation awarded him their inaugural Vaclav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent, which he shared with Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi, and Saudi Arabian women’s rights activist Manal al-Sharif. Oh, and he has 150,000 followers on Twitter (@aiww).
In capturing Ai on screen, filmmaker Alison Klayman offers a bridge not only between East and West, but also between the adventurous Ai and his tamer local counterparts. After graduation from Brown University in 2006, Klayman moved to China and by a stroke of fortune filmed Ai at his photography opening in Beijing. The meeting led to a five-years chronicling Ai in China, England, Germany, and New York. While she had no background in China’s history, culture, or languages, her patient immersion yielded a thoughtful and sensitive portrait that culminated in Ai’s “disappearance” at the hands of the Chinese government, which held him for 81 days, then released him and charged him with tax evasion. (After he was barred from his first court hearing last week, he gave a gloomy interview to CNN, Ai Weiwei paints a bleak picture of his and China’s future.
Although international media has relentlessly chronicled Ai, Never Sorry is the first feature film about him, not including his own documentary efforts. Klayman –and her editor- have a light touch that renders Ai’s eventful life and prolific career into a digestible and understated 90-minute story that won the Special Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and on Saturday played Silverdocs, a prestigious festival run by the Discovery Channel and the American Film Academy.
As a writer who is more verbal than visual, cannot draw, paint, or photograph to save his life, and is the brother of a filmmaker— I have a tremendous respect for visual artists. Still, Ai’s story suggested to me a few lessons that Brooklyn visual artists and artists in general might keep in mind. My intention is not to be didactic or disparage anyone, but merely to invite artists –and their audiences— to debate the standards by which we assess quality, and consider how art might still save the world.
- Art is collaborative. Unlike the solo practitioners at Northside, Ai is a team player. Like Andy Warhol or Donald Judd, he’s a big-picture guy whose staff executes his ideas, whether they’re hand-painting 100 million (not a typo) porcelain pieces (“Sunflower Seeds”) or canvassing Chinese villages to identify the dead (“Sichuan Earthquake Names Project”). One Brooklyn artist who took this collaborative spirit to heart was Carla Gannis, who solicited self-portraits from the public, then digitally manipulated the images for her Non-Facial Recognition Project.
- Art is irreverent. Unlike the generally humorless art I saw at Northside, Ai’s work is irreverent. He’s known for flipping the bird in photographs, whether in Tiananmen Square or in fan photos. In “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn,” Ai does just that. He doused similar urns with brightly colored paint and painted one with the Coca Cola logo. The point—as he explains in Never Sorry—is not punk destruction or desecration for its own sake, but a challenge to what we value as sacred. Even the phrase “so sorry” seems to be a slap at the stereotype of a Chinese man who cannot distinctly pronounce Rs and Ls in English. Take that, Charlie Chan.
- Art is participatory. At his show So Sorry at London’s Tate Modern, Ai invited museum visitors to walk across a bed of 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds. Most of the Northside art followed the museum imperative: Look, but don’t touch.
- Art is technological. While painting and photography have their place, such traditional mediums ignore the power of the Internet to convey emotion on a global scale. Although Ai is 55, he has made his online presence inseparable from his art. He’s a microblogging master: his tweets are both public relations and a public journal of 140-character Zen koans. Beyond dissemination, technology lets Ai reflect. As he says in Never Sorry, many of his ideas occur while tweeting.
- Art is local. As shown by his stances on the Olympics, the Sichuan earthquake, and the destruction of his own art studio, Ai cares deeply about his environment. Anyone in Manhattan, Brooklyn, or countless American cities should be able to relate to his frustration at the bulldozing of Beijing to pave the way for economic growth.
- Art is global. As a young man, Ai lived for 12 years in New York, where he learned English, immersed himself in the downtown scene of the 1980s, and obsessively documented his life in photos. While he didn’t produce any art of major significance, Never Sorry implies that being an expatriate made him an artist. In the film, Ai calls New York City the greatest city in the world. This doesn’t mean that New Yorkers, and Americans for that matter, should never leave the country for inspiration. Had Klayman never gone to China, she might never have met Ai or made her film.
- Art is human. Aside from Gannis’s portraits, the Northside art I saw had few human figures. While not all of Ai’s work depicts people, they are always implied, whether it’s a list of the names of earthquake victims or sculpture of interconnected chairs.
- Art is social. On screen, it’s mesmerizing to watch Ai, a spry middle-aged guy with a gut and a salt and pepper goatee, soft-spoken in English and his native tongue, but hardly demure. He comes across as a guy who can talk to anyone about anything, whether it’s a German art critic, a British curator, or a Chinese cop harassing him. By contrast, the Northside artists seemed reticent and reluctant to engage visitors. One exception was Orit Ben-Shitrit, who cheerily chatted about her photographs and Vive Le Capital, a short film where a businessman, dancers, and Cosimo de Medici meet in the vault of an abandoned bank on Wall Street. The crudités and drinks she offered did not hurt her cause either.
- Art is humble. Despite his celebrity, Ai never comes across on camera as someone who’s full of himself. In Never Sorry, one of Ai’s workers compares himself to a hired assassin who kills on command, but never questions the order. Ai takes a humbler view of his role, calling himself a catalyst, not a lone genius. Klayman is similarly modest. Aside from brief appearances on camera and her audible questions, she takes a fly on the wall approach in both verité scenes and formal interviews in her film. Klayman may frame the story, but she lets Ai speak for himself.
- Art matters. Social justice infuses Ai’s work and life, whether he’s cataloguing the thousands who died in the Sichuan earthquake, protesting the Beijing Olympics, or fighting police brutality. If the Occupy movement and the Tea Party can challenge the status quo from the left and the right then why don’t more artists? Of the hundreds of artworks I saw at Northside Festival, only Shitrit’s short film Vive Le Capital addressed anything social or political, albeit obliquely. It’s ironic that the United States, land of individuality and free expression, is so solipsistic. It’s more ironic that China, which suppresses human rights, dissent, and nonconformity, would produce an Ai. And the phrase “So Sorry” is even more ironic. As Klayman suggests with her film’s title, Ai is not apologizing for his work. If he’s sorry for anything, perhaps it’s for the fact that he’s even necessary. He might not be, if the world were more humane.
Keith Meatto is editor in chief of Frontier Psychiatrist. His recently reviewed the music documentary Charles Bradley: Soul of America, which he saw at South by Southwest 2012. While one of his pet peeves is referring to public figures by their first names, he reminds readers that “Ai” is the artist’s surname, per the Chinese custom.