Ai Weiwei’s art and the impact its had on Chinese government officials has brought him to world attention. A progressive, he is not afraid to put himself or his art on the line. A new documentary film Ai Weiwei – The Fake Case by Andreas Johnsen will be out soon in the U.S. and the poster announcing the film is as provocative and vexing as the artist’s work. It’s a composite photo-montage (see it larger here) by Neil Kellerhouse which shows Ai Weiwei naked, standing at attention in Tiananmen Square just yards away from Mao’s portrait and feet away from a policeman, also at attention. “Weiwei really inspired me to come up with the concept of the poster,” Kellerhouse told me. “His courage directly inspired my willingness to go where I went with the concept for the piece.”
Yet I wondered how this manipulation of pictorial truth would provoke both the authorities and the artist. Thanks to Kellerhouse and Johnsen I reached Ai Weiwei through email with a few questions about art and provocation, and how he felt about this particular interpretive depiction.
You have been outspoken about free speech in China. Do you foresee an opportunity for free speech to occur in the near future?
The People’s Republic of China has recently celebrated its 64th anniversary in October, memorializing the country’s so-called liberation by Communist control. Yet earlier this year, the Party leaked a secret memo called “Document 9”, citing the “seven perils” of Western society, rejecting important values such as “constitutional democracy” and the “universal values” of human rights, media independence and civic participation. It’s evident that China’s political regime is tirelessly working to prevent itself from building a society that has free expression and the free flow of information. Censorship is particularly strict in China, major internet platforms are blocked and it has officially announced that China’s web surveillance system employs over two million people to monitor and control the Internet. China will not have free expression or freedom of speech as long as the government is not elected by its citizens. With today’s social and political conditions, the gap of interests between the regime and the people will only keep widening if the country continues to be run by an unelected government.
I have published books in China that underwent “editing” or censorship. The measure of free speech in the U.S. is that one cannot endanger another, “yelling fire in a crowded movie house,” through free action. Can you tell me why your work, and in particular this photograph used in the poster, would threaten the Chinese government?
I should clarify that I did not design the poster. The filmmaker and Neil Kellerhouse produced it, and I had a chance to see it earlier. If I have to imagine the implications that it would have on a society like China, it’s that public nudity, even with just a fabricated image, would be seen as a gesture of provocation against authorities, especially when the Tiananmen Square has always been regarded as politically charged, a revolutionary and holy site. Tyrants are not afraid of armed enemies, but they cannot tolerate the sneer of the weakest individual. This is why artists and poets are often punished for their work. It’s the questioning attitude that touches their nerves the most.
Did you have any qualms or second thoughts about the making of this photograph?
It was not my choice in making the photograph, but I support and cannot censor any form of expression.
This was a composite photograph. You did not exactly pose in the square. How do you feel about being represented by a manipulated image?
As I said, I support any form of free expression. The filmmaker and the designer are entitled to their rights to express their understanding of my condition. It’s not extreme or improper in any sense to show the nude body of a man, or a woman. Creative forms of expression always reflect our understanding of ourselves and our relations to the society and the universe. If it offends someone somehow, that’s their problem.
Neil Kellerhouse and I spoke about the “truth” factor. While this might be equated with some of the greatest manipulated photos — I’m thinking John Heartfield, etc. — it’s so realistic that the viewer is bound to think this was a grand and dangerous gesture. You’ve made these gestures in your work, but this could be considered a lie. How do you feel about this?
First of all, it’s not a lie if there is clear indication that the image is a composite. However, very often the blurry boundary between a truth and a lie is defined by the creator of the image and the one perceiving it. Behind many lies, many truths lie behind them. Whatever consideration [is] taken about the photo only reflects our preconditioned understanding of truths or lies, the same goes for our perception of importance, or time.
It will be the poster for Andreas Johnsen’s film that, in part, addresses some of your “issues with the Chinese government.” Isn’t there a real possibility the very same government will arrest you? Are you nervous about the consequences?
My conditions in China aren’t more dangerous than anybody else. While my attitude may create discomfort for those in power, it’s not my intention to do so. Nonetheless, I need to maintain a minimal sense of self both as an artist and as an individual who desires to share the burden of social responsibilities. The cost always surprises me and is beyond our control.
I realize whether it was actually photographed or not, you face government sanctions simply for appearing to have provoked them. What is your plan if they attempt to do something rash?
I have never intended to provoke; I have only been trying to communicate truthfully or have conversations, which never happen. I went through the judicial system with my case, subjecting myself and the company to the court system, only with the hope to bear social responsibility and to help. Most efforts were made to research and archive materials, yet the media did not have enough time to understand what we are doing, so it became easy to give us a shallow conclusion of being provocation. It is also more sensational that way.
Are you pleased with the image?
I am pleased with any form of neo-reality.
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