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Conversation: What Next for Ai Weiwei?

Internationally known Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was released from prison last week after a three month detention. Earlier Thursday, I got an update on Ai’s situation from Alison Klayman, who has been working on a documentary about him, “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” spending a great deal of time with him in Beijing and around the world.

She talked to me from New York:

[Read a transcript after the jump]

Here’s a teaser for “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry”:

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry TEASER from Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry on Vimeo.


Here’s a slide show of Weiwei’s works and the response to his arrest:

Follow Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry and Art Beat on Twitter.


JEFFREY BROWN: So Alison, what’s the situation right now for Ai Weiwei?

ALISON KLAYMAN: Right now Ai Weiwei is at home with his family and he’s able to travel around Beijing with a sort of heavy monitoring on him. He has to check in when he goes places and it’s not clear that he is going to be able to do any traveling, any interviews, go on the internet at least for a year, but the situation is still really murky. Some of his associates who have been released are still out of contact and one is even in the hospital, and again, not able to contact anyone, so there is still a lot of uncertainty right now with Ai Weiwei’s situation. But the good news is that he is no longer in detention and neither are his four associates.

JEFFREY BROWN: And I know he hasn’t been able to speak publically very much, and I think that’s a condition of their release, is the way it appears. Have you been able to be in touch? Do you have any sense of how he is doing right now?

ALISON KLAYMAN: Well, I called him the day that he was released. It was evening in Beijing and I was following the news that, you know, that maybe he was released and then that he was on his way home, all on Twitter. And when I saw on Twitter a few people had successfully text messaged him or even given him a call, and they were reporting what he said I gave him a call as well from here in New York and he said he was really happy to be home. He was happy to be his mom. But that he wasn’t really able to talk about much else. And that’s pretty much the situation.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now Alison, remind us about his role as an artist and as an activist in China, as a way of helping people understand what’s behind this arrest and detention.

ALISON KLAYMAN: Sure, I mean, Ai Weiwei is one of the most internationally renowned contemporary Chinese artists. Ever since, you know, the late ’90s, early 2000, his work has been recognized and exhibited around the world. He spent the ’80s living in New York City. His art is a lot about ideas as well as esthetics so he’s made a big splash with everything from bringing 1001 Chinese people to documenta in Kassel, Germany, to helping design the Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium, because he also has an architecture practice, to his most recent installation at the Tate Turbine Hall, where he had commissioned a hundred million porcelain sunflower seeds. So, you know, his work is very much Chinese, but it’s reached an international platform. He also has what some people separate — I don’t really — he believes that art is also about communicating and reaching people and so he spends a lot of his time over the last few years on the internet on a blog before it got shut down by the government and then on Twitter. And he, you know, speaks his mind very openly. Part of that was even walking away from the Olympic stadium fanfare after it was designed. He didn’t attend the Olympics. He’s been known to speak his mind about what he thinks of the Chinese society, Chinese authorities, and to try to engage people online and that has proven to get him in sticky situations in the past and that’s where we are today.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, and of course, there was always the risk of what did finally happen: this imprisonment. Is there a clear understanding of what finally provoked it? I mean it’s clearly coming as part of much broader crack down by Chinese authorities and some people see it linked to what was going on in the Arab world.

ALISON KLAYMAN: One thing that’s sure is that, you know, there is always something new going on with Ai Weiwei and we kind of knew that the risk was always there, but I don’t think it’s at all possible to really understand why now, except for the reasons that you mentioned, including the sweeping changes that happened during the Arab spring, which may have rattled China and contributed to this sort of several months where we’ve been seeing a much wider crackdown with a lot of people, lawyers, bloggers, you know, artists, writers, being detained or even charged. It’s also we’re approaching 2012 when there is a sort of personnel shift, a power shift in the communist party in China. So there is a lot of reasons, but, you know, none that seem perfectly transparent as to why now and why they have taken these measures against Ai Weiwei, which have been on the level, completely different than any other sort of resistant he’s faced from China’s authorities in the last few years.

JEFFREY BROWN: So is it clear at this point what happens next for him? I mean there are, as you said, the tax charges and I gather that he’s been pressed for quite a bit of money in fines and what the authorities call tax evasions.

ALISON KLAYMAN: Yeah, right now they are asking to collect about $2 million from Ai Weiwei, and I know that there— again, there is some pushback from him and his family in terms of where those numbers came from, and whose obligation it really it is, considering, you know, whose name is on the paperwork of that company, and sort of small details like that. But the really bigger question that everyone has is how is this going to affect his art and his work which to me encompasses also this sort of idea of activism and being active online and speaking with people, communicating with people.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ok and before I let you go what’s the status with your film?

ALISON KLAYMAN: We’ve been working on the film for years and then editing for the last few months as things have continued to change, and we’re very, very close to finishing and hoping to premiere maybe in the fall and get it out to the world as soon as possible. I think this story couldn’t be more timely. It’s also universal, I mean, with its themes of freedom of expression. And I think that it’s always been really true to who Ai Weiwei is, so the fact that all these things have happened to him only sort heightens the resonance of the story that we are telling.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yeah, dramatic story where the drama continues. The film is called “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry.” Alison Klayman is the filmmaker. Thanks so much for talking to us.

ALISON KLAYMAN: Thank you, Jeff.

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