01 October 2019 (released)
01 October 2019
I was first introduced to the fascinating work of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei with his 1995 photographic triptych ‘Dropping of a Han Dynasty Urn’. In the piece Ai is seen deliberately dropping a 2000-year-old, priceless urn in an act of rebellion against the Mao regime. This tactile reinvention of art to serve a new concept carries on brilliantly into the new documentary chronicling his latest work, ‘Ai Weiwei: Yours Truly’.
With his passport revoked by the Chinese government and following his release from unlawful captivity, Ai takes his art to the prison island of Alcatraz to create a dialogue around freedom and suppression of free speech. The decision to use Alcatraz to house the project was genius and added a historical and tangible presence to the artwork that strengthened both its poignancy and resonance with the public. The titular Yours Truly refers to the final section of the exhibition in which the public was given the opportunity to write postcards to the political prisoners of conscience still incarcerated for their many actions in the hope for improving human rights around the world.
The interaction between art and the public was perfectly captured within the documentary. Too often is art reduced to gallery walls, making very little of a political statement due to its separation from the outside world; this is something Ai Weiwei actively fights against. He realises that to inspire change within the public he must take the art to them and utilise the space of the installation to maximise its potential. The most interesting of the pieces within the exhibition was a large selection of Lego pixel portraits that brought colour and excitement to otherwise dark lives. Seeing children have such a strong reaction to the work showed how important engaging with the next generation is for ushering in change within society, something Ai was very much aware of and set out with the intention of doing.
A rather straightforward narrative grounds the film, following the process of the exhibition until the half way mark and then, rightfully, spends the second half of the film punctuating just how important the exhibition has been to the political prisoners it was dedicated to. Ai’s own perspective on their particular type of suffering came from a very real place. Being born into captivity as his family toiled in a labour camp in the northern wastes of China and having a father who was imprisoned for 20 years means that Ai’s understanding of these complex issues isn’t unfounded or disingenuous, instead being humble and intricate. Sequences involving his poet father and a certain installation as a homage to him were especially heart-warming.
The thoughtful message of the project helped inspire hope within the public that saw the exhibition and equally for those the project was about; showing them that they aren’t forgotten about in their struggles; thus, beating the powers trying to take that away from them. Ai meets with Chelsea Manning, an ex US soldier imprisoned for seven years for leaking footage of civilian drone strikes by the US, who’s sacrifice of a quarter of her life awakened people to the atrocities of war undertaken by governments. Chelsea and the others spoken to, were so grateful for the project and the impact it has had on their mental wellbeing and tenacity to fight for their beliefs. The use of postcards profoundly demonstrates how analogue mediums can be used to circumvent censorship and empower those who otherwise have had their voice taken from them, giving them the strength to continue their struggle.
The cinematography was impressive enough, hitting the right points and the use of cutaways accentuated the mood of the film at the necessary moments. One such motif that permeated the film was that of surveillance. From ornate lanterns suspended from CCTV cameras to the works of Ai himself who frequently uses it to comment on the importance of privacy and its death in the twenty first century. I found that focusing on these little details contributed to the voice of the director Cheryl Haines and what she was bringing to the material of Ai.
Such a man as Ai taking up this project, with his personal connection to imprisonment and dissatisfaction with the government added a raw complexity to his exhibitions that I would have liked to know even more about. I never fully connected with the director as guide through the film, I would much rather have heard more thoughts of Ai himself, hearing his musings on imprisonment, freedom and how he feels the project has changed people’s perspectives. Shockingly, the majority of the hundred or so political prisoners’ portraits used within the exhibition were people whose plights I and most people are completely ignorant to, this really solidifies how successful the project has been in broadcasting the struggles of the censored.
To conclude, Ai Weiwei: Yours Truly was an inspiring effort, highlighting the power of the public to make a change in their societies and appreciate the fights undertaken by selfless people in the name of freedom. Seek out this great documentary for its poignant and very relevant message in contemporary society of persevering in your struggle no matter the cost.