Ai Weiwei is a controversial troublemaker in his homeland of China, but his reputation abroad is that of a brilliant dissident artist. His latest protest against the government was a gesture: Unable to leave the country, Ai sent an empty chair to the Stockholm Film Festival in lieu of his imposing presence.
Compared with the other incidents packed into Alison Klayman’s 2012 documentary, the chair stunt is tame. Based in Beijing, Klayman gained unprecedented access to Ai from 2008 to 2010, a period when he was especially active. Ai keeps his politics and art in separate compartments, and disdains using one to advertise the other. On the other hand, he has no qualms about deploying Twitter to inflame or goad his fellow Chinese into action.
Klayman seems deep in thrall of her subject — understandable, since Ai has a fascinating and majestic presence that hints at a tormented complexity. How Beijing treats him will be an indicator of China’s future: Is it ready for the kind of democracy expected from the world’s second-largest economy? One interviewee remarks wryly: “Nobody can change China; not even Ai.”
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