Last month, Plymouth College of Art showed a rare screening of the documentary Fairytale by Ai Weiwei. Here is a brilliant review by live arts producer, Danielle Rose.
If you missed out on the screening in May, Plymouth College of Art have a copy of the documentary available on DVD. The next film screening for Sinopticon is Farewell my Concubine, showing this evening at Plymouth Arts Centre. Visit here for more info.
An artist is not paid for his labour
but for his vision.
No matter where you stand on what deserves greater remuneration, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei demonstrated an abundance of both with his project Fairytale. I was lucky to catch a rare screening of the project’s documentary at Plymouth Art College as part of Sinopticon.
Fairytale was Ai’s contribution to the 2007 Documenta in Kassel, an international exhibition of contemporary art lasting 100 days that takes place once every five years. The German town for over 30 years was home to the Brothers Grimm. The library building where they worked is now known as the Fridericianum, and not only regarded as Europe’s first public museum, but is also the main venue for Documenta. Fairytale was a response to the history of the exhibition’s locality, but also the myths and stories through which each country’s’ citizens understand the other.
Last year there were worldwide concerns for Ai’s safety prompted by his disappearance after arrest in China. He was released nearly three months later after purportedly admitting to tax evasion, but barred from discussing his case publicly, using Twitter, or leaving Beijing without permission. Ai has since denied owing the money, and said that during captivity he was interrogated about his subversion of state power, rather than his financial accounts. Ai is openly critical of the ruling communist party’s approach to democracy and human rights.
I’d followed Ai’s story in the news, and went along to the screening with a desire to find out more about his work as an artist. The screening was introduced by Plymouth College of Art Principal Professor Andrew Brewerton, who is an Honorary Professor of Fine Arts at Shanghai University. He highlighted that the pronunciation of Ai’s company name, Fake, is provocatively “fuck” in Chinese.
For Fairytale, Ai ambitiously brought 1001 Chinese citizens to Kassel. The documentary shows the arduous process of getting visas in place – some of the women from rural locations had no officially recognised name, and had to register one for the first time. The film also captures those who were refused permission to leave the country, such as a policeman, made redundant for his uncensored blogging and honesty about the state torturing suspects.
The labour involved in this project was intensive, Ai and his team planned everything down to the last detail, right down to designing the dorms that the visitors stayed in. The documentary captures Ai even planning meal by meal what catering will be on offer.
Fairytale captures a rapidly evolving China, and the growing gaps and vastly different characteristics between the rich and poor, and metropolitan regions and rural villages. The documentary shows us these extremes, not just the places, but in the lives of the inhabitants and their expectations of Fairytale. Whilst village women joke that they hope their daughters will marry a foreigner, students born into more privileged families quibble over the application process and ask “who is paying for this?”
Integral to Ai’s art work is what is out of his control, in this case human beings. Arriving and departing on mass in groups of 200 each week, the participants were able to spend their time as they wished. He’s asked in the documentary what he will do if participants don’t want to return to China. He articulately replies that although as an artist his intention for this project is for visitors to come and go as a unit, each individual has freewill and what they do with that is ultimately out of his control.
An integral part of the project and the documentary is not just the experience of the 1001 Chinese, but the effect the temporary influx has on Kassel and its inhabitants. Interviews with the German residents reveal great cultural misunderstandings, the editing of which does not portray the local inhabitants in the best light. The film balances itself however documenting the meeting of the two very different groups of people, capturing a mutual curiosity about the other and often a desire to reach out to each other. One of my favourite moments in the documentary is a Chinese man contemplating a hydrant, and for a moment as a viewer it’s possible too to cast aside knowledge of its function and regard it as a mysterious object, a red sculpture perhaps.
Returning home, the experience will have changed the world view of every one of the 1001 participants, and as they continue to share their tales with those around them, the change continues.
The most valuable gift that Ai gave to the participants was not the flights or a full board all-expenses paid trip to Europe, but the knowledge and experience of another place, perhaps most importantly a democracy. The temporary influx of Chinese to the German town will also have had an impact on its residents,and how they view China.
Ai believes that individual experiences are the basis of social change. The documentary left me believing that with him, and as a live art producer I left completely inspired. Ai stated openly that it doesn’t matter to him if Fairytale is viewed as art or not. Ai is a pioneer, the act of being one can be a lonely walk, through sceptics and critics. The path left behind though serves as a way and inspiration for others.
Danielle Rose works and lives in the South West. Over nine and a half years she has developed a successful career in the arts, working most recently as Live Arts Producer at The Dartington Hall Trust. After three years working at Dartington and producing major projects such as Tagore Festival 2012, she has decided to take a sabbatical of sorts to consider where she wants to live and work next. She set up a blog both to document her time out and to share her passion for the arts.