[-empyre-] without fear or/of favor

Johannes Birringer Johannes.Birringer at brunel.ac.uk
Thu Nov 18 06:44:53 EST 2010

dear all

last night BBC 1 showed a substantial one hour documentary film on Ai WeiWei, 
i presume because of the current exhibition or long -durational installation of "Sunflower Seeds"
at London's Tate Modern.

the film focussed  -- in hushed tones and with western curators and gallery owners
pontificating and only one commentator responding to any of the questions in a language
other than english -- on  Ai WeiWei's life and artistic formation, some of his outspoken/political actions and
the amazingly wide range of artistic activities;  the early sections on his childhood and father,
during the years of the Cultural Revolution, and his departure for New York, were moving and

The ending was a bit confused, as we see crowds of mesmerized people delving into and
lying in midst of a sea of millions of handmade/handcrafted porcelain sunflower seeds, 
and then only during the final credits is it mentioned briefly that the installation is no
longer accessible to the public.

I didn't understand that as I had not been able to go there yet myself.

When i checked the review's I found a blog that apparently records
conversations between Ai Wei Wei and viewers [ http://lihlii.posterous.com/ai-weiwei-without-fear-or-favour-bbc1]

and a commentary, cited here for you:

Imagine's film about the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei reserved the one thing that most people already know about him for a hasty back announcement over the final credits, as Alan Yentob mentioned that health and safety considerations had limited access to his Tate Turbine Hall installation of 100 million hand-crafted porcelain sunflower seeds. On film, visitors rhapsodised about the sensual pleasure of burying themselves in the seeds and the Proustian memories of childhood it conjured. After which Yentob forestalled a rush to the Southbank by explaining that none of these joys were available any longer. You couldn't blame them for not making more of it though because this was a fascinating film, and the fiasco over ceramic dust would have made for an unjustly deflating ending.

It would have been interesting to know how Ai Weiwei felt about it though, because he appears to be an exacting judge of finish. In one startling scene in the film he was shown touring a factory that had been working on an installation for him, destroying giant ceramic vases that had, for some reason, fallen below the standards he required. Perhaps this was an art work in itself – or an allusion to one – since one of Ai Weiwei's early pieces showed him smashing a valuable Han dynasty urn. Either way it was a smashing bit of film, effectively solving the art documentary's perennial difficulty in making aesthetic discrimination dramatic to watch.

There was an odd paradox here. Ai Weiwei has pretty consistently been in trouble with the Chinese authorities – courageously campaigning for a proper inquiry into the death of schoolchildren during the recent earthquakes and suffering beatings and surveillance for his pains. At the same time he collaborated in the design of the Bird's Nest stadium in Beijing and clearly still has an internet connection, because he conducted part of his interview with Yentob by webcam, after the BBC's request to visit him in China had been turned down. In other words, the Chinese authorities appear to be simultaneously infuriated by him and proud of him, as an artist of international standing. One can only hope it buys him enough space to continue working.

Johannes Birringer

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