By Kim Rathcke Jensen
A red cat jumps up on the table and sits on my notebook. It pushes away my hand and looks up at me. The cat has bad breath.
Ai Weiwei lives in North-eastern Beijing where he has both his studio, office and living quarters. And lots of cats – some 20-30 of them. When I first visited him in 2009 we stood in the studio with kittens scampering all around us. One of them was rolling about in his latest work of art – a big pile of a million hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds. The following year they were exhibited in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in London. One million had by then become 100 million, but without the cats that we now have around us as we sit at the table in his office.
Ai Weiwei has been called one of the world’s most influential artists. He currently has exhibitions in such diverse places as Rangoon and Toronto and is involved in innumerable projects around the world. But Ai Weiwei’s art is the only thing that travels. He, on the other hand, is stuck in this small building complex in Beijing, which is the centre for his work, production and staff of assistants.
Ai Weiwei is not allowed to leave China.
The travel ban imposed on him by the authorities is an attempt to control him, but his dissidence gets out nonetheless. And even to Copenhagen, where despite his physical absence, Ai Weiwei is forcefully present at this year’s documentary festival Cph:Dox. His new documentary ‘Stay Home’ has its world debut tomorrow Friday at the Danish film festival, and Ai has also curated a film series for the festival entitled ‘Everything is under control’.
“The idea that everything is under control is a form of wish, but it never comes true. Nothing is under control, and nothing will ever come under control,” Ai Weiwei says.
“When we speak of control, we think about the efforts by people and societies to establish control and order and design a pattern of behaviour,” as in China, he says.
“Over the past 100 years, China has never been stable or under control. Right now everything is under control on the surface because of a harsh regime called Communism. But the crisis and problems are obvious,” he says.
AIDS is a political problem
An example is to be found in Ai Weiwei’s Stay Home – the latest of the 20 documentaries that Ai has produced since he began seriously working with the genre in 2007.
It is a film about Liu Ximei. Ximei is a second child and as a result of China’s one-child policy she was given away by her parents and grew up in another family. As a ten-year-old she had an accident, was admitted to hospital and given a blood transfusion. And AIDS.
In China, those with AIDS are subject to heavy discrimination.
Two weeks ago, the authorities proposed legislation that would ban people with AIDS from public swimming pools and baths, despite the fact that in reality the danger of contagion is next to none. Experts and critics say that the proposal is a serious setback for information about AIDS and a sad testimony to the government’s attitude.
AIDS is also a political problem. In the 1990s the authorities urged poor people to donate blood. It all went terribly wrong, particularly in Henan, one of China’s most populated provinces. People began to donate blood several times each week using needles and equipment that was reused. An AIDS epidemic broke out that devastated entire villages and the issue remains a problem for the one-party state. Not least because the current Chinese Premier Li Keqiang was governor of Henan at the end of the 1990s.
“AIDS is a problem in China, but the government will not admit it openly. Here is no talk of how to save those who are infected, how to help them or improve their conditions,” says Ai Weiwei.
“If you ask these questions, the authorities see it as an attempt to topple the state and you are a threat to society. That is the case with any information that the government itself has not chosen to make public. But these are cases about normal people, and their conditions affect everyone,” he adds.
Activist and documentarist as one
Ai Weiwei believes that artists should have social commitment – something that is a clear message in his documentaries. Ai says that the films should be seen as evidence documenting social events and incidents.
“In China there is little public debate, communication or information. If you see the news, it is generally manipulated, misrepresented or just lies,” says Ai Weiwei, adding that there is a need for other voices.
As a result, Ai Weiwei works, for example, with young students in a sort of unofficial film school. He gives them a subject or issue and sends them out to tell a story.
Sometimes he takes part in a group – which can be as large as 100 people – and takes part in the film. Often directly and in a way that influences the situation. Ai does not feel that there is any difference between being an activist and producing documentaries.
“How you react in a situation, your knowledge, conscience and morals are important for everyone. With these in mind, you are using communication to tell the world what is going on,” Ai Weiwei says.
The films ‘reflect our lives’ he says adding that he ‘does not normally like stylishness’. Often the groups are arrested, and Ai says you cannot take along expensive equipment only to have it confiscated or destroyed. As a result the films are often basic and shaky.
The most important thing, Ai says, is that you push the record button.
“Irrespective of what you get, even if it is only a second, if you don’t push the button you’re not there and you can’t tell me a story. So if you are there, record,” he says. His way of making documentaries is about being prepared and observant.
“In one of the films I just manage to switch on the camera and record before the police break down the door and beat me up. I didn’t know they were going to do it, but you must be prepared,” Ai says.
Documentarists under pressure
He adds it is extremely difficult to produce documentaries in China. Wang Jiulang, another artist and documentarist, says that it is always difficult to make independent documentaries, not just in China but also in the West. But it is becoming increasingly more difficult in China.
“If a subject is not mainstream, the authorities won’t back it up and it is impossible to get help from organisations, people or companies. Everyone is afraid of the powerful authorities,” says Wang, who among other documentaries produced ‘Beijing Besieged by Waste’.
Another problem is the fact that all films in China must be approved by the censors before they can put on the market. Only a few documentaries pass through censorship and as a result they have only a limited audience. That makes them difficult to finance.
But where Ai, Wang and others suggest it is all getting more and more difficult, Director Li Feifan is an optimist.
“I believe that we are at the beginning of a boom and the next decade will see a completely new space for documentaries,” says Li who has, among other films, produced one a 40-minute film about air pollution in Beijing called ‘Future Armageddon’.
Li says that one of the reasons is that the Internet has provided new channels through which films can be distributed. He adds that young Chinese are moving away from the traditional media and towards the new.
Optimists or pessimists, both agree that censorship is one of the main problems. In China, documentaries have to be seen on a computer and not at the cinema. Yet again, for example, the documentary festival in Beijing was closed down this year and documentaries were basically only seen in private homes or among closed groups in cafés or at universities.
As a result, Ai also uses the Internet to distribute his films, although services such as YouTube are unavailable in China. It is always a question of finding unblocked channels of distribution, resulting in hundreds of thousands of films on DVDs.
For China’s sake
Ai Weiwei’s audience is primarily Chinese. He says that outside China there is a lot of information and he is not needed.
“As a professional artist you know how to communicate and speak to an audience. Given that I know how to do it, it is my responsibility to do so. I would be ashamed if I didn’t. That would be a crime,” Ai Weiwei says.
“We don’t produce films for egoistical reasons or for ambition, but because we want to give a voice to people who would otherwise not have one,” he says.
But when films are tailored for a Chinese audience, they can be difficult to understand for foreigners. Ai says, however, that he is extremely happy that Stay Home has made it to Copenhagen.
“Perhaps it gives a taste of what life and conditions are like for this AIDS victim and how the local government is trying to keep her down and control the situation,” Ai says.
“Everyone knows that Denmark has some of the best living conditions in the world and people are conscious of justice and social conditions. If I am able through my film to provide an understanding of this enormous nation, a fifth of the world’s population, and the conditions that everyday Chinese live under, that is enough for me,” says Ai Weiwei.
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