How do an artist and a curator collaborate on a site-specific installation? That question forms the core on the latest film about one of the world’s most famous living artists, Ai Weiwei. Titled Ai Weiwei: Yours Truly, the feature-length documentary looks at the development of Ai’s 2014–15 exhibition “@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz” in San Francisco, which was organized by the film’s director, Cheryl Haines, through the For-Site Foundation, where she serves as executive director.
Ai and Haines began work on the “@Large” exhibition in 2013, about a year and half after the artist was released from his now-infamous 81-day detainment by Chinese authorities. S.A.C.R.E.D., a multipart installation that re-creates the conditions under which Ai was held, became the more famous project about that period of imprisonment when it debuted at the Venice Biennale that year, but “@Large” was also perceived by many as a moving meditation on his detainment.
“Not all inmates in prison have committed crimes. Many people are in prison because they want to change society,” Ai says in the new documentary. “I have an obligation to speak on their behalf.” Later on, he adds, “I think the act of art is always involved with danger.”
For the Alcatraz exhibition, Ai created several new works that in part responded to the legacy of the infamous prison where the show was sited. It speaks more broadly to the imprisonment of political dissidents around the world, many of whom have been arrested and imprisoned for trying to create reform in their home countries.
Ai honored these activists by creating pixelated portraits of them in Legos for the show’s main work, Trace, which is accompanied by a binder offering a short two-paragraph bio for each of the activists. A second powerful work, Yours Truly, allowed visitors to send postcards to any of the dozens of activists featured in the Lego portraits, and was inspired by a childhood memory Ai has of his father, Ai Qing, a famous 20th-century poet who at one point was exiled to a labor camp in northeast China. One day, Qing received a postcard from someone to celebrate the anniversary of the publication of one of his important poems. “I saw the expression on my father’s face, how that moved him,” Weiwei says. “That made a very strong impression on me.”
In Haines’s documentary, it becomes clear that the most important hitch in creating this site-specific installation was that Ai couldn’t travel to Alcatraz, neither ahead of the exhibition nor once it opened—the Chinese government had confiscated his passport. (In July 2015, shortly after the Alcatraz exhibition closed, Ai got his passport back and soon left China.) “For an artist, to be unable to see the venue and to be unable to interact with the audience—if I had to imagine the toughest restriction on an exhibition, that would be it,” Ai says at one point.
It is clear that Haines means her documentary as a way of showing how close she got to Ai, a figure whose celebrity and political views have made him a difficult subject for filmmakers and journalists. She includes footage of herself visiting Ai in his studio in Beijing, sending him virtual walkthroughs of the various spaces, and updating him via video conference about the progress of the exhibition. But there’s a palpable tension between the two, creating a constant sense of awkwardness. At one point, after hearing that Haines plans to change the location of one of the works, Ai responds, “That’s another change. You just come up with this or—? Please don’t discuss artworks. I really hate it. Just leave that to us.”
Haines seems to be unable to leave much of anything to Ai, and by the film’s midway point, it becomes clear that the documentary ultimately is more about her than it is about the artist. At one point in what appears to be a self-interview, she tells the camera, “I’ve always thought of myself as someone who is aware of human rights abuses around the world but not until I did this project did I realize I know nothing. There’s so little I know.” Later on, we follow Haines as she makes her own visits to Cairo and Washington, D.C., to interview Ahmed Maher and John Kiriakou, two of the activists whom were included in the Trace Lego portraits. Maher’s mother asks if the interview will endanger her son somehow, and Haines tells her, “No, it’s okay,” as if any one curator—let alone any one person without a deep understanding of a country’s legal system—could possibly know that for certain.
A large portion of the documentary was filmed more than five years ago. What was considered activism then is far from what is considered activism today, and Haines’s filmmaking often comes off as simple-minded. At one point, she presents documentation of some of the activists who received the letters from visitors to Ai’s exhibition. Irom Chanu Sharmila, who at the time was on a 14-year hunger strike in India, said that receiving the postcards “broadened my view toward my struggle. I feel indebted to all these well-wishers across the world.” Steven Hawkins, former executive director of Amnesty International, explains that sending these letters helps offer activists “hope and spirit that makes sure that the government doesn’t get its ultimate prize, which is to imprison you mentally and crush your spirit.”
More than 900,000 people saw Ai’s exhibition, and some 92,000 postcards were mailed to activists by them. But beyond sending a postcard, what actions did “@Large” spur its visitors to take as a result? Looked at today, as Black Lives Matter protests following the killing of George Floyd by police officers continue throughout the country, gestures such as this one feel extremely performative. It’s clear that thoughts and prayers aren’t enough, and if every person who visited Ai’s show did something more—like donating to organizations like Human Rights Watch, for example—it’s possible that real change could have taken place. Haines’s film stands as a memorial to a now-bygone kind of activist art—but, if anything, we can watch her film to learn why that kind of work is no longer relevant.
Ai Weiwei: Yours Truly will be released on July 8 in Virtual Cinemas.