Ai Weiwei’s Documentarian on Luck, Dissidence and Steven Colbert: An Interview with Alison Klayman

But with his detention in 2011, it feels more like the classic story of the dissident. Sign Up For Our

But with his detention in 2011, it feels more like the classic story of the dissident.

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Yes, I really have seen a tremendous change and tightening and crackdown and these spaces for people to express themselves and push things forward have gotten smaller in China.

And in the end, it’s even more complex; but it also has become simplified, because you have people who have been saying, “Oh this guy is going to get detained for the things he is saying and the kind of work he does.” However, it is not because he is an artist that he is being detained. It’s not because he dropped a Han Dynasty urn in a photograph or gave Tiananmen the finger. It’s because of the way he is speaking and using social media. That’s the point. He is an artist who is determined to reach beyond just the art world or art works. He wants to communicate. And so if that’s through an interview with Time magazine or a Tweet, then fine, because he’s just trying to reach more people.

Speaking of the role of the artist, how has working with Weiwei made you think differently about art and yourself as an artist, especially so early in your career?

I think with this whole experience, I got to feel it from two sides. First, it was learning from Weiwei and his example. I saw how his art is about more than himself, how it’s about encouraging people to find their voice.

But also, I’ve gotten to create a film. And that’s my work. I’m getting to see how it’s impacting people, and it’s something that is getting a lot of attention in that way. So, maybe a week after seeing the film, something will come up when people will ask themselves, “What would Weiwei do in this situation?” Maybe they’ll be a little more bad ass, a little more outspoken, a little more fearless or feel compelled that they shouldn’t be silent about something.

Ai Weiwei is pretty badass in China, but what about artists here, working without the threat of government crackdown?

The challenges just manifest themselves differently. Here, you’re not under an authoritative regime, but you just feel like you can’t accomplish something, either because there is the status quo that feels too entrenched, or interests that feel much more powerful than you, or you believe that there is too much apathy. There are all of these forces that could keep you or keep me from even just expressing something just because for all these reasons, you don’t think it will work.

So which artists do you look to here who you feel like are doing really important work, Weiwei sort of work?

I believe that there are a lot of artists locally and around the States who are doing these things. But when I think of someone in the US who is doing something like Ai Weiwei, my answer is actually Steve Colbert! I say him, because I feel that comedy is in the category of the arts.

Yes, your documentary shows that Weiwei is really, really funny.

Totally, and that’s why I think that Weiwei and Colbert are very, very similar in what they are doing through their art. Colbert’s character is entertaining, which is something meant to draw you in. And Weiwei’s work does the same: he has naked photos of himself, photos of himself jumping, silly things. It is because that’s who he is and he also knows that’s how you relate to people. But what Colbert is doing with the Super PAC work is just like Weiwei in that he is going through the system to show us exactly how it operates. He has a lawyer, Trevor Potter, showing how you go about the paper work, how to collect money. This is something that is of vital importance to our campaign finance system, which is of vital essence to our democracy. And the reason I watch the show, is because it is engaging and feels relevant, and it is about transparency in the system, just like Weiwei’s work.

Does Ai Weiwei ever watch Colbert?

No, but I always tell him to!  I think Weiwei would get him. He has a really good sense of humor.

But the system is not trying to detain Colbert.

Yeah, there’s the difference!

And you must be making the Chinese system pretty nervous yourself.

I guess so. But I wonder at what level it would take for reporters to ask about the film at a foreign ministry briefing. It hasn’t reached that level yet. But maybe an Oscar nomination. Or, actually, maybe it would have to be a win!

Do you think you’ll send a copy to Jackie Chan?

No, no copy. I just wish he’d go see it.

And where are you going after this?

It’s hard to say what the next thing is just yet, but I think about it a lot. Whatever comes next, whether it’s a short work or another documentary or a series or a screenplay, whatever it is, it’s going to tie back to this somehow: with freedom of expression or the impact that art has.

And do you think we’ll be seeing Weiwei at the Oscars?

My dream is to have Ai Weiwei at the Oscars, obviously, Wouldn’t that be everyone’s dream? I told him, “You’ve gotta get a tux!”

What is he like in person?

He’s pretty intimidating at first, especially if he doesn’t like you. I wouldn’t want to be in the wrath of Weiwei. But he’s so much fun. If he were here he’d say lets go here and here and try that and that. He’s fun. He always shows you a good time.

egogolak@observer.com

Ai Weiwei’s Documentarian on Luck, Dissidence and Steven Colbert: An Interview with Alison Klayman