River Of Grass
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Alison Klayman's all-access documentary profiles China's most famous artist provocateur
At the beginning of Alison Klayman's excellent documentary we learn that there are some 40 cats living at Ai Weiwei's Beijing studio, but that only one of them has learnt to let itself out. As Ai voices his amazement at this feline's unique ingenuity, we realise that in many ways the artist/activist is himself something of a "cat that can open doors", cunningly finding ways around every barrier that the Chinese authorities try to place between him and the outside world – and if footage of the cat leaping up to turn the door's handle resembles a viral internet meme, then this reflects the online media (blogs, Twitter) that Ai has embraced to get his message out.
Ai's poet father Qing was first imprisoned by Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists, and then proscribed, exiled and 're-educated' under the Communists, so Ai himself has inherited a tradition of creating art in resistance to the State. His irreverence is perhaps best encapsulated by the many published photos featuring his upturned finger – even directed at Tiananmen Square - although we also glimpse in his studio's garden a sculpture of a hand with the middle finger hacked off, symbolising the censorship that Ai frequently faces.
It is a strategy typical of this self-styled "chess player" who takes all the State's attempts either to cover its own tracks or to silence him and turns them into both works of public art and tests of expressive freedom. When surveillance cameras are placed all around his studio, Ai reproduces their likenesses in marble sculptures. When police officers film him, Ai and his team film them right back (and publish what they record online). When the same authorities that had invited him to build a studio in Shanghai order its demolition, Ai organises (on Twitter) a public demolition party that slyly ridicules the State - and then films the demolition itself, as though it were a national analogue to his own iconoclastic works involving the destruction of Chinese ceramic antiques.
Himself a prolific documentary maker, Ai is also a master of co-option, inspiring others to participate in his projects as accomplices or "hired assassins" - and Klayman's all-access, warts-and-all coverage of this artist's struggles with the State represents an extension of Ai's own ideals about transparency and freedom of expression. For Klayman's documentary is yet another avenue of communication, forcing China's closed doors open just that little bit wider.
Like its subject's own works, this documentary takes what it finds and shows what it sees. It is an eloquent discourse on transparency and free expression, with a State that currently favours neither.
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