Ai Weiwei has arguably succeeded Warhol and Picasso as the most recognizable artist of his times. He has also succeeded Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn as the most recognizable dissident of our current era. The Mainland Communist regime is less than thrilled about both scores. Ai’s dissidence (as well as that of his father before him clearly informs his art, as his curator Cheryl Haines clearly documents in Ai Weiwei: Yours Truly, which screens during this year’s DOC NYC.
For nearly three months, Ai was held incommunicado on bogus charged. He was then released, but placed under house and his passport was confiscated. It was under these circumstances Ai challenged Haines to help bring his art to an even greater international audience. Her idea to mount a site-specific show at the notorious Alcatraz island prison was fraught with complications, but the creative possibilities and symbolism fired Ai’s creative imagination. Much like banned Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi directing over the phone during his house arrest, Ai planned out the project from his Beijing workshop, relying on Haines to oversee the implementation on-site.
Clearly, the scale and historical significance of Alcatraz well-suited Ai’s art—perhaps better than most museums could. Patrons saw large scale installations that have been interpreted as tributes to the oppressed Tibetan people and his father, Chinese modernist poet Ai Qing, who was beaten, publicly humiliated, and ostracized during the Anti-Rightist Campaign.
Yet, the clear centerpiece of the show was “Yours Truly” that depicted Lego portraits of prisoners of conscience held at the time around the world and then invited patrons to write postcards to any of the subjects whose cases particularly moved them. However, Haines clearly focus on Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning as the centerpiece of the “Yours Truly” “dissidents,” which is problematic.
Unlike Snowden, who seems to have made a good faith effort to protect U.S. human intel sources, Manning was convicted of essentially committing an “information dump” that many feared jeopardized Afghan citizens working with coalition forces—and at least one Ethiopian journalist was reportedly forced to flee his country (well represented with “Yours Truly” dissidents). Critics argue the government has not concretely established this causal connection, but doing so publicly could further expose these very people. The long and the short of it is the case of Manning is way more complicated than it is represented in the film and therefore clouds and dilutes its message. Ironically, all the disproportionate time spent on Manning probably makes Yours Truly the CCP’s favorite Ai Weiwei documentary.