China, Israel, and the Art of Disaster Politics (Ai Weiwei)


(Ai Weiwei Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995)

I saw on Netflix the other night Alison Klayman’s film Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, which synchs the political uses of art, fame, and social media. The film looks at the work of the internationally renowned contemporary artist, but mostly it follows him around as he runs afoul of state authority. On the surface and under the surface, it’s an inspiring film, and an impressive one. But I have this nagging doubt. I can’t explain it, but the more I try to say what the movie is about, the flatter it gets.

Ai designed the so-called Egg Nest Stadium for the Beijing Olympics, but withdrew his participation in protest against the destruction of old historic neighborhoods as well as police actions against migrant workers in the capital. At the center of Klayman’s film is the artist’s attempt to investigate the catastrophic 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, in which some 70,000 people were killed, including many, many children crushed in poorly built schools. Ai and his team committed themselves to tracking down as many names of the victims as they could find. It doesn’t end too terribly well. Ai is followed by police and beaten up in a Sichuan hotel. Insisting on justice and his own aggrieved innocence, he’s filmed physically confronting a police officer responsible for the incident. That to me was a truly unimaginable act. But finally, in the film’s epilogue, Ai has returned visibly shaken and refusing to speak after an eighty one day incarceration.

The more I think about it, I’m not sure what to think of this film. Clearly we are intended to admire with astonishment the brave artist in the pursuit of his political protest against the crushing force of authoritarian state power. And that’s the right response, at least in part. But it’s too simple. And the more I write it, the less convinced I am that that’s the entire story. Indeed, the more I think  about Klayman’s film, the more it reminds me of Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man. Herzog’s film follows the adventures of naturalist Timothy Treadwell whose too close with Alaskan brown bears led to a bad, brutal end for all concerned, namely for Treadwell himself, and for his girlfriend caught in the end between Treadwell filming the scene and the bear who eventually ate them. In Herzog’s film there are certain lines, in this case between us and bears, that are best left respected and uncrossed. To compare the two films is to see how a totalitarian state is just as big, just as impassive, and just as brutal as an Alaskan Brown bear.

I know that  can’t be the intended moral of the film about Ai. The film’s surface meaning is to motivate political change. But part of me thinks that complicating that surface intention are more violent tensions. In a very famous performance piece captured on film, Ai drops an old Han dynasty urn. The artists is standing impassively as the precious object falls to shatter on the ground. I want to understand as the violence of that action its contempt for a past whose aura has been already sullied by the power of a state. But I can’t help but wonder that the power of the state, especially that of a dynastic state, is intended, always and above all, to forestall such a catastrophe, but that it does so by projecting power in such a way that the only ultimate end of that projection can be the disaster it sought to hold off in the first place.

I know what I am about to say is going to be another version of the elephant and the Jewish question. And yet, setting aside the difference in demographic scale and political structure, this all reminds me of the State of Israel, Judaism, the Land of Israel, and the Jews. These are all beautiful antique things, no less beautiful than a Han Dynasty vase, whose image and aura the regime wants to protect by projecting its power in such a way as to quicken the unfolding pace of the disaster it seeks to prevent.

One might understand why critical thinkers might be moved today to be done with these old things and to let those old forms shatter. But I confess that I am not a radical person. Sentimental people like myself always seem to try to  seek, desperately, to catch the object in midair either just before or just after it’s too late.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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