One of the perks of celebrity is having both the platform and the high status to fight for the causes that strike closest to home. Typically, the world’s elite tend to be in a prime position to vocalize their personal beliefs without any backlash (unless you’re a Dixie Chick, then you probably should just “shut up and sing”) or fear for their safety. Yet, China’s government doesn’t seem to care—at least not when it comes to artist and dissident Ai Weiwei.
Ai is best known for his politically charged artworks and avid social media presence that direct unflinching criticism at the Chinese government. In 2011, the 56-year-old artist’s activism landed him atop ArtReview’s list of the most powerful figures in the art world, where the magazine explained that “Ai’s power and influence derive from the fact that his work and his words have become catalysts for international political debates that affect every nation on the planet: freedom of expression, nationalism, economic power, the Internet, the rights of the human being.”
But that same year, his vocal outcries also put him in the hands of government officials, where he was detained for almost three months under 24-hour surveillance.
Ai was born into a family of activists—his father is a famous Chinese dissident poet—but it wasn’t until he returned to China in 1993 to care for his sick father, after spending a decade in New York City, that his work began to tackle the social and political issues in his home country. His biggest crusade, freedom of speech, is what ultimately landed him behind bars in 2011. A new film, Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case, follows the Chinese artist from the moment he was released, examining his assimilation into life post-confinement, his development of new works, and his pursuit of total freedom.
In the film’s opening scenes, journalists immediately confront Ai as he arrives home after 81 days of interrogation, and he is forced to decline all questions. Under the terms of probation, Ai is restricted from participating in any form of interviews.
Three months earlier, the activist artist was arrested while boarding a routine flight to Hong Kong. Many members of his staff were also taken into custody and the architectural studio, FAKE Design, that he helped found in 2003 was shut down. The authorities claimed Ai owed over 12 million yuan ($1.85 million) in unpaid taxes and fines.
“Chinese people don’t believe it because nobody pays taxes in China,” Jeremy Wingfield, Ai Weiwei’s manager, states in the film as the artist awaits a trail he is banned from attending. “So there’s no such thing as tax evasion.” Furthermore, Ai is merely a consultant for the design group, as the company is registered under the name of his wife, artist Lu Qing.
During Ai’s detainment, the government’s original accusation of tax evasion quickly fade, shifting his interrogation to the politics behind the artist’s social media outcries. Ai’s blog, which began in 2005 on China’s largest platform, Sina Weibo, produced “a steady stream of scathing social commentary, criticism of government policy, thoughts on art and architecture, and autobiographical writings.” Clearly, the Chinese government was none too happy.
“Ten hours after I arrived, the first person comes into the room to start the interrogation,” Ai recounts. “I asked: ‘Why am I here?’ He said they were holding me for subversion of the state power because of my blog writings and my internet activities.”
Word spread like wildfire around the globe as Ai remained confined in a tiny room alongside two guards who monitored him 24 hours a day. Sleepless nights and mental torture ensued during his nearly three-month detention—something that still affects him to this day.
The film follows Ai’s conception and construction of S.A.C.R.E.D., six medium-scale iron boxes, each representing a separate action during his incarceration—supper, accusers, cleansing, ritual, entropy, and doubt. During his creative process, Ai recounts the torturous moments his mind continues to try to block out, a frustrating side effect that has altered his short-term memory and caused sleepless nights. S.A.C.R.E.D. is the centerpiece of a traveling exhibition of recent works now on display at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.
Set snugly between the brick piers of the museum lobby, the vast space turns cramped and cold as the iron boxes transform into a row of cell blocks transporting the viewer into Ai’s memory. Scenes of various moments—eating, showering, being interrogated—are meticulously replicated almost in life size. Ai is quite literally taking us inside one of the most painful personal moments of his life.
It has been over three years since the dissident artist was arrested and detained and less than two since his probation ended, yet Ai still remains confined to China. Banned from exhibiting in his own country, Ai is forced to coordinate the multiple international exhibitions opening this year alone—and the site-specific works included in them—all from his studio in Beijing.
Also in the exhibition are a handful of politically charged works from the past decade, some of which have never, or only rarely, been exhibited. In 2008, a devastating earthquake in Sichuan left approximately 90,000 people dead or missing, including many children, as a result of poor building construction largely due to a corrupt government. From this single event, Ai created many works, most notably Snake Ceiling. Comprised of student backpacks of various sizes linked together, the final snake-like figure now hangs from the museum ceiling and represents the many similar bags that were left scattered across the wreckage.
In a blog post dated March 20, 2009, Ai called to action a “citizen’s investigation” in response to the government’s failure to recognize and release the names of the students who perished. This group compiled the names and information of 5,196 children who were killed, which are also on display at the museum.
In July of 2013, Ye Haiyan, an activist seeking health care for sex workers and AIDS victims in China, was forced by Chinese government officials to pack up her belongings before being driven to a remote area with her 14-year-old daughter and told never to return. Ye documented the instance in photos, which soon surfaced online.
For Ye Haiyan’s Belongings, Ai purchased everything from Ye—a refrigerator, boxes of clothing, small pieces of furniture—and reconstructed her possessions exactly as they were left on the side of the road. “In bringing this piece to Brooklyn,” Sharon Matt Atkins, the museum’s managing curator of exhibitions, said, “I think you get a sense that this is not something unique to him or the work that he is doing in questioning the government, but really much broader than that.”
“Now, I have even more difficulties, more responsibilities, more reasons for me to stay here as long as I can,” Ai tells journalist Silke Ballweg in the film when asked if he will leave the country for good and if he has any fears. “If I don’t show my voice, if I don’t act as I always believe, then I think I’m dead already…this kind of expression is not only necessary for artist, but for any human being—to show that they are alive. They have to speak out to the kind of danger that can affect everybody.”
Whether or not the authorities will ever return Ai’s passport remains unknown. But, in the meantime, Ai refuses to be silent, continuing to shine a spotlight the social injustices plaguing his country wherever he can, proving his tenacity can’t be tamed no matter how hard the government tries.
Ai Weiwei: According to What? is on display at the Brooklyn Museum of Art through August 10, 2014. Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case debuts at IFC Friday.