In 2014, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei still had his passport withheld by the Beijing authorities, denying him foreign travel. While he was pondering a new exhibit about political prisoners, Ai was contacted by the San Francisco gallerist and curator Cheryl Haines with a proposal: she had the connections to provide him with a sensational site for the event – Alcatraz prison, the former US federal penitentiary, closed since 1963 and now a tourist destination.
They agreed that this would be a dramatic showcase, and would relate to Alcatraz’s shabby 19th-century record of imprisoning Hopi Native Americans who refused to be “Americanised” in their education, and also honour the Native American protest-occupation of Alcatraz Island in 1969. Haines has now directed a very absorbing and valuable documentary about the creation of this artwork, which relates to Ai’s honourable record of using art as memorialist-activism.
It includes powerful interviews with Ai’s mother Gao Ying and brother Ai Xuan, and movingly puts Ai’s work into personal context – that is, the Chinese government’s treatment in the 1950s of Ai’s late father, the dissident poet Ai Qing, transported to a remote labour camp with his wife and two young sons who were the intimate witnesses to Ai’s brutalisation and humiliation. This was the horrendous experience that drove this event, and perhaps Ai’s career.
Ai effectively created the installation – entitled @Large – at long distance, with Haines travelling back and forth between China and the US to discuss it. The centrepiece would be a gallery of political prisoners from countries around the world, rendered with Lego bricks in a kind of analogue-pixellation, with visitors encouraged to write morale-boosting prepaid postcards to the prisoner of their choice, inspired by a postcard of support that Ai Qing himself received. The exhibit was a huge success, with 900,000 visitors and 92,829 cards sent, including to Americans such as Chelsea Manning, the former US soldier imprisoned for disclosing documents to Wikileaks, and John Kiriakou, the former CIA analyst and anti-waterboarding campaigner, imprisoned for disclosing information to a reporter.
After the exhibit, dozens of the people featured in it were released, including Manning, Kiriakou and indeed Ai himself, who had his passport restored to him in 2015, and it may well have been this artwork that helped create the circumstances in which this was possible.
The events under discussion in this film are not exactly recent, and things have moved on a little. Manning is interviewed in the post-release situation created by the Obama pardon, although she was sent back to jail for refusing to comply with a grand jury investigation of Julian Assange. And there is a difficult moment when Haines’s camera glimpses a Lego portrait of Aung San Suu Kyi, released since 2010, but at that stage still honoured as a human rights heroine. In 2019, the view of Suu Kyi is different.
The Chinese government may well have been embarrassed by Ai’s new exhibit and by his growing international prestige – but also, perhaps, mollified by the fact that it was not simply directed at China but so many other countries, very prominently the US. So it may have been a cool piece of political diplomacy on Ai’s part. But it was a tough, shrewd, persistent kind of campaigning, like the kind of old-fashioned letter-writing once encouraged by Amnesty International, and like Ai’s investigative artistry in discovering and memorialising the names of children killed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, when the government were censoring the details. Haines’s brief, well-made documentary is a very worthwhile guide to this venture, and to Ai Weiwei’s own tragic family history.
•Screens at the Raindance film festival in London on 28 and 29 September.
Source: The Guardian