Who's Afraid of Ai Weiwei?


ALISON KLAYMAN, Reporter: [voice-over] To find him, you have to take a long ride to the outskirts of Beijing. That's what I've been doing for the last few years. As a freelance journalist and filmmaker, I've been spending time with one of the most intriguing people in China. His name is Ai Weiwei.

[www.pbs.org: Twitter #AiWeiwei]

In recent years, he's emerged as China's first global art star, with museums all across the world showcasing his monumental sculpture, provocative photography and bold installations.

This year, it was sunflower seeds, 100 million of them, all made from porcelain, each one painted by hand, filling the giant Turbine Hall at London's Tate Modern Museum, a spectacle that reminded some of Weiwei's artistic hero.

CHEN DANQING, Beijing Artist: In one of my articles, I describe him as he's a Beijing bandit [?]. He's an Andy Warhol. [subtitles] Freedom is part of his nature. He never fears anything. He says whatever he wants.

ALISON KLAYMAN: Both artist and provocateur, there's no one in today's China generating quite this kind of attention.

EVAN OSNOS, The New Yorker: He's probably the most documented Chinese public figure alive. I mean, there's never really been somebody in China who has this combination of qualities.

ALISON KLAYMAN: Ten years ago, Ai Weiwei settled in this village outside Beijing, transforming it with galleries and studio spaces that he designed himself. When I first began visiting him, I discovered that whatever his latest project, he was always obsessively documenting his daily life. A few yeas back, he began posting it all on line. I showed up on his blog over 40 times.

I also found Weiwei the artist had become as provocative with his keyboard, tapping out a daily diatribe against local corruption and government abuses.

HUNG HUANG, Beijing Publisher and Blogger: Weiwei through Internet has created probably the biggest following he's ever had in his life. I think he had people who were waiters, waitresses. He had a lot of just average Chinese who were following him because he was speaking their mind. He was speaking up for them.

AI WEIWEI: My political involvement, it's really personal. If you don't speak out and you don't clear your mind, then who are you?

EVAN OSNOS: In some cases, they call him "Ai Shen" on line, you know, sort of "Holy Ai" or "Ai God." You know, that's a very dangerous description in China.

ALISON KLAYMAN: Ai Weiwei's activism took a major public turn as China prepared to host the 2008 Olympics. Weiwei had worked with a Swiss architecture firm to design the signature building of the games, the Birdsnest Stadium. But as the games approached, he grew disillusioned, calling the Olympics a "fake smile" that China was putting on for the rest of the world.

EVAN OSNOS: The Olympics had been presented to him and to the world as an act of integration and openness. They were being turned into a moment of celebration of the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, and he didn't want to be a part of that.

ALISON KLAYMAN: Ai Weiwei refused to attend the opening ceremony.

CHEN DANQING: [subtitles] Typical Chinese critics are mild in their words. They never directly speak out against, the Communist Party or the government. They would never directly curse this society. But Ai Weiwei is different. He will scold them. He uses the most aggressive words to point out society's dark side.

ALISON KLAYMAN: The government stayed curiously quiet about Ai Weiwei, so he continued to pursue his art and activism. Then one day, he wanted to tell me about his next big project.

AI WEIWEI: I have a story. I don't know if you're interested.

ALISON KLAYMAN: He said the new project would be a response to this, the earthquake that had devastated Sichuan Province in May 2008. Some 70,000 people were killed when poorly built government buildings and schools collapsed.

When he toured the wreckage for himself, he grew outraged at the lack of government responsibility. Weiwei's eye was especially drawn to the deaths of the school children, whose names the government refused to release.

AI WEIWEI: This is absolutely crazy. Come on, those people have names, you know? So we checked in every office possible. None of them would give us a single name of who is dead.

ALISON KLAYMAN: Weiwei put out a call to action on his blog, and he got an overwhelming response. He gave cameras to volunteers to film in Sichuan as they began what he called a "citizen's investigation" into the earthquake deaths.

— [subtitles] How many casualties were there?

— [subtitles] About 94.

ALISON KLAYMAN: Volunteers, young and old, began hounding local officials for the children's names.

— [subtitles] How many at Xuankou Middle School?

— [subtitles] Forty-three dead at Xuankou.

— [subtitles] Forty-three?

— [subtitles] Yangping, how many names did we get just now?

ALISON KLAYMAN: Then more volunteers posted the names on line.

— [subtitles] 4,546.

EVAN OSNOS: The act of organizing people into a community in China is in itself a very risky thing to do, and he has dedicated himself to doing exactly that. And that puts him into a very small community of people.

ALISON KLAYMAN: In the end, Weiwei's team published more than 5,000 names, including the names of almost all of the students. The project drew international attention. It also provoked the government's Internet censors, who were now paying more attention to Weiwei's blog.

AI WEIWEI: Maybe 20, 30 articles have been taken down by Internet police or by different authorities. I don't know, what can they do? The next thing is shut down my blog.

ALISON KLAYMAN: That's exactly what the government did, in May 2009, as the anniversary of the earthquake approached. And then they did something else.

INSERK YANG, Art Assistant, Ai Weiwei Studio: So this is one of the cameras. I think it probably looks at our entry at the main door.

ALISON KLAYMAN: Inserk Yang, Weiwei's long-time art assistant, shows me the new surveillance cameras.

INSERK YANG: Over there at the corner is another camera.

ALISON KLAYMAN: Weiwei quickly turned his own camera back on the government, getting the photos out on his Twitter feed and incorporating the cameras into his artworks.

[www.pbs.org: Read some of his tweets]

INSERK YANG: That's basically his life. He doesn't make a big difference between art and architecture and the political activities. You know, it's just whether it interests him or it doesn't.

AI WEIWEI: Right here, they are watching me.

ALISON KLAYMAN: And then there's the surveillance van periodically parked outside of his home.

[on camera] Are they sleeping in there?

AI WEIWEI: They're there all night.

EVAN OSNOS: He didn't in any way abide by the implicit rules of that relationship, which is that you're supposed to pretend you don't know you're being followed and they're supposed to pretend that they're not following you.

AI WEIWEI: Everybody says China changed a lot. To me, it doesn't change in a certain sense, and that's what I value the most, you know, such as freedom of speech and the— you know, the liberation of the mind. And you know, all those things never changed.

ALISON KLAYMAN: [voice-over] Weiwei didn't give up his earthquake project. In the summer of 2009, he headed back to Sichuan province to support a local earthquake activist who'd been jailed by the government. Weiwei spread the word, and a mass of his followers made the trip out to Sichuan to attend the man's trial. They gathered at a hotel the night before Weiwei was going to show up in court. That's when local officials found out.

Weiwei's friend, the rock musician Zuoxiao Zuzhou, was in the room next door.

ZUOXIAO ZUZHOU: [subtitles] At about 3:00 o'clock, we heard "Bang, bang, bang!"

[Audio recording, subtitles]

AI WEIWEI: Who's there?

OFFICER: Police.

AI WEIWEI: What police?

OFFICER: From the local station.

AI WEIWEI: Why are local cops knocking on doors at this hour?

ZUOXIAO ZUZHOU: [subtitles] He turned on a small audio recorder. He knew that something big was going to happen.

[Audio recording, subtitles]

AI WEIWEI: You're hitting me? You brought all these cops to beat me? Is this how police officers behave?

OFFICER: Don't speak without evidence!

AI WEIWEI: How did my clothes get torn?

OFFICER: You did it yourself.

ALISON KLAYMAN: Weiwei had been hit in the head by the police, but they blamed him for his own injuries.

AI WEIWEI: I tore my own clothes and beat myself?


ALISON KLAYMAN: In the hotel elevator, surrounded by police, Weiwei snapped this photo. Then he tweeted it to his on-line followers, who got it out around the world.

CHEN DANQING, Beijing Artist: [subtitles] Everyone was curious why this guy could be critical but nothing bad happened to him. So logically, he was finally beaten up by the police. That's what everyone was worried about. [English] So expecting to one day it's going to happen. Then it happened.

ALISON KLAYMAN: A month later, Weiwei opened a major new exhibition in Munich. It was his biggest solo show yet, featuring many signature works.

[www.pbs.org: A slideshow of his artwork]

ALISON KLAYMAN: But just before the opening, Weiwei began complaining of a headache. He was rushed to the hospital. In emergency surgery, doctors found bleeding in his brain, presumably from the beating in the hotel room.

ZUOXIAO ZUZHOU: [subtitles] For Ai Weiwei, an artist who is more famous than Andy Warhol was in his lifetime, he doesn't need to do these kinds of things. These things are actually very dangerous.

ALISON KLAYMAN: In his hospital recovery room, Weiwei sent a message to the police back in China. Then he uploaded the photos for his followers.

AI WEIWEI: Some photos at right moment completely change history. To tell the truth, no matter big truth or small truth, it always should be justified.

ALISON KLAYMAN: The show in Munich went on. It was capped by a giant installation covering the museum's facade with children's backpacks, just like the ones Weiwei had seen in Sichuan. The backpacks spelled out a sentence told to him by the mother of an earthquake victim. It read, simply, "She lived happily on this earth for seven years."

CHEN DANQING: [subtitles] He is really brilliant. He can take his own response and very naturally turn it into art. Who else in contemporary art does this?

ALISON KLAYMAN: Later, back home in Beijing, Weiwei's own mother would deal with the news of her son's beating.

[subtitles] How do you feel when you see so many articles about your son?

GAO YING, Mother: [subtitles] I feel very proud because he speaks out for the average citizen. He grew up in the countryside. Ai Weiwei was with us through a long and difficult period, a very bitter time.

ALISON KLAYMAN: [voice-over] When Ai Weiwei was growing up, his father, Ai Qing, had been branded a class enemy and the family was exiled to western China. There Weiwei watched his father, one of the country's most famous poets, reduced to cleaning toilets during the Cultural Revolution.

Weiwei also saw his father maintain his spirit of resistance, a family trait that now has Weiwei's mother worried for her son.

GAO YING: [subtitles] Every night, I can't sleep.

AI WEIWEI: [subtitles] What are you doing? There's no need to—

GAO YING: [subtitles] I'm worried they'll rough you up.

AI WEIWEI: [subtitles] If they want to get me, they will. We can't control that.

GAO YING: [subtitles] Those people!

HUNG HUANG, Beijing Publisher and Blogger: Most of the other Chinese artists I know have gone on to having very nice houses, fancy cars, and I don't think they would do anything to damage their lifestyle. Weiwei would put his life on the line for something that he believes in.

[www.pbs.org: Behind the scenes with the filmmaker]

ALISON KLAYMAN: After almost a year-and-a-half, Weiwei still wouldn't drop his earthquake campaign. In April 2010, he went back to confront the police in Sichuan who had beaten him in his hotel room. This time, he didn't just bring a lawyer. He brought his personal videographer, Zhaozhao, me, two Chinese filmmakers, a New Yorker reporter, and several assistants to post live to Twitter.

AI WEIWEI: [subtitles] I've come to file a complaint about my injury.

EVAN OSNOS, The New Yorker: To a reasonable viewer who walked in and didn't know what was going on, you would have assumed it was some kind of reality show.

Are you expecting a successful result?

AI WEIWEI: A result? I don't think so.

EVAN OSNOS: I asked him why he bothers to go through this process. He was wasting, basically, the whole afternoon on a process that he knew was ultimately doomed. And he said, "Well, you know, you can't just say that the system is flawed. You have to work through the system and show it in all of its detail, and that's the only way that you can ultimately make a critique."

Over the course of the afternoon, he'd been twittering about the fact that he was going to have dinner that night at a Laoma Tihua restaurant, which is a place that specializes in a certain kind of pig's trotter. And as soon as we got to the restaurant, it was this weird sensation where, all of a sudden, these people who'd been standing on the sidewalk, milling around, doing things, turned out to be people who had come to have dinner with him. And everybody there knew that by simply eating dinner there, it was an act of defiance.

FAN: [subtitles] Teacher Ai?

AI WEIWEI: [subtitles] Yes?

FAN: [subtitles] I follow you on Twitter.

AI WEIWEI: [subtitles] Have a seat.

FAN: [subtitles] I'm not staying. I just wanted to catch a glimpse. Twitter fan.

AI WEIWEI: [subtitles] Thank you.

ALISON KLAYMAN: As if on cue, city police showed up and asked Weiwei to move the party indoors.

AI WEIWEI: [subtitles] We're almost done eating.

ALISON KLAYMAN: But he out-maneuvered them.

AI WEIWEI: [subtitles] We think your food here in Chengdu is especially tasty when eaten outdoors. We came all the way from Beijing.

ALISON KLAYMAN: Then, when the police started filming the party, Weiwei sent his own videographer, Zhaozhao, to record them.

CHEN DANQING: [subtitles] Weiwei has a little hooligan inside him, so he knows how to deal with other hooligans, because the Communist Party are just hooligans, really. So you have to turn yourself into a hooligan, as well.

ALISON KLAYMAN: Over the months that followed, there would be more encounters. Weiwei was briefly put under house arrest, and at the end of last year, he was stopped while trying to leave the country.

Then in January, this happened. Weiwei's new studio complex in Shanghai was bulldozed by the government. The studio had taken Weiwei two years to build. His response was to show the demolition live on line. Then he declared it one of his most powerful artworks ever.

[on camera] Do you ever examine yourself to think why is it that you are so fearless compared to other people?

AI WEIWEI: I'm so fearful! That's not fearless. I'm more fearful than other people, maybe. Then I act more brave because I know the danger is really there. If you don't act, the dangers become stronger.


blog comments powered by Disqus

In order to foster a civil and literate discussion that respects all participants, FRONTLINE has the following guidelines for commentary. By submitting comments here, you are consenting to these rules:

Readers' comments that include profanity, obscenity, personal attacks, harassment, or are defamatory, sexist, racist, violate a third party's right to privacy, or are otherwise inappropriate, will be removed. Entries that are unsigned or are "signed" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. We reserve the right to not post comments that are more than 400 words. We will take steps to block users who repeatedly violate our commenting rules, terms of use, or privacy policies. You are fully responsible for your comments.

Posted March 29, 2011

Watch Who's Afraid of Ai Weiwei? »
FRONTLINE series home | Privacy Policy | Journalistic Guidelines | PBS Privacy Policy | PBS Terms of Use

FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of WGBH Educational Foundation.
Web Site Copyright ©1995-2014 WGBH Educational Foundation