BANGKOK -- Artist, activist and exiled China critic Ai Weiwei went viral two months ago with the release of "Coronation," an astonishing documentary shot in Wuhan, the ground zero of the global pandemic. Filmed clandestinely by scores of citizen journalists, it was shot in the locked-down Chinese city and released without advance notice.
The documentary is part of a barrage of new material from one of the world's busiest artists, who last year moved from Germany to England, while retaining a studio in Berlin. He is currently projecting an innovative video montage on a gigantic electronic billboard -- the largest in Europe -- in London's Piccadilly Circus. From late October he is launching his first foray into Thailand, headlining the Bangkok Art Biennale and a solo show at the Tang Gallery at River City.
While many have hunkered down during the COVID-19 pandemic, the prolific Ai seems to have shifted into higher gear. The Wuhan film is the first of three he has made during the pandemic, he says in a video interview from his Berlin studio, which he built after moving to Germany in 2015. The other films examine recent protests in Hong Kong against growing Chinese influence, and the Rohingya refugee crisis in Myanmar and neighboring Bangladesh. Refugees have long been a focus for Ai, and are the topic of his sweeping BAB exhibit, "Law of the Journey."
"They are both finished, but we need to space them out," said Ai, who is also an architect and helped to design the Bird's Nest Stadium for the Beijing Olympics in 2008. He later compared the Olympics to a giant costume party filled with "fake smiles." His architecture company is named Fake Design. Such criticism earned him reprisals from Chinese authorities, including a beating that nearly killed him, but his treatment has not affected his sardonic sense of humor. "This is like a bunker," he said of his Berlin studio. "It's buried deep underground."
As director of "Coronation," Ai coordinated the work of amateur sleuths, many filming on phones in Wuhan, more than 8,000 km from Berlin. More than 100 hours of footage resulted, he said. "I told them what we wanted, and gave them some support, about sound and lighting."
Released via online viewing platform Vimeo, the two-hour film scooped the world's media with an up-close look at the origins of the virus, plus rare scenes of the lockdown in people's homes and hospitals. The virus is believed to have originated at a wet market in Wuhan, probably in December 2019. By January, the city was sealed off, its residents ordered to stay indoors, while trucks and workers in hazmat suits sprayed it with industrial chemicals.
While China's COVID-19 death count is disputed, the country is widely seen as having successfully curtailed the virus. Wuhan reopened this summer, and China's economy is rebounding. "It shows the response of a police state," noted Ai, who foresees a powerful China increasingly challenging the U.S. in what he calls the "Chinese century."
Yet "Coronation" is also a surprisingly subtle film, showing a shattered city and ordinary people responding to the deadly crisis, with ample drone footage over an eerily deserted metropolis. The on-the-ground scenes seem shockingly ordinary if you strip away the deadly context. People discuss the inconvenience of the lockdown (in Chinese with English subtitles) and lack of information about the crisis.
We see people navigating and evading police roadblocks, and listen to a worker who helped to construct one of numerous temporary hospitals erected in Wuhan, where he is now stranded, sleeping in his car, and calling family back home. On the streets, we see robot cleaners, and in dramatic hospital footage, the early treatments and evolving cleaning methods, knowing now that few back then had any sense of how deadly the virus would become.
Subtlety is not a quality typically associated with Ai's provocative art, which includes "Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn" in which he documented the destruction of a rare, 2,000-year-old vase. That was 25 years ago, soon after he returned to Beijing from a long residency in America and announced his arrival as an attention-grabbing, do-anything artist.
Orchestrating the Wuhan film from a distance was an old art form for Ai, who leaped online while under house arrest in Beijing over a decade ago, and became an internet addict. "I spend more time online than [U.S. President Donald] Trump," he quipped, adding: "I've been doing this since 2009," a reference to his investigation into an earthquake in Sichuan Province and the subsequent official cover-up of the death toll of students in schools that collapsed because of shoddy construction. Ai documented more than 5,000 victims, honoring them with films and art, including an exhibition of thousands of school backpacks spelling out the words: "She lived happily for seven years in this world," in Chinese.
Now 63, Ai has become an international activist, championing causes and human rights around the globe. But back then, he was focused on China, and became the country's most notorious artist. "He's representative of the generation that came out of the Cultural Revolution," said Meg Maggio, director of Pekin Fine Arts, an art gallery with outlets in Beijing and Hong Kong. "He's become huge, a catalyst and an inspirational figure."
While Ai's journey from art to activism surprised many contemporaries, he seemed born to the role. His father was Ai Qing, one of China's most prominent poets, who was denounced during the Anti-Rightist Movement of the 1950s. His family was sent to a labor camp when Ai was 1 year old, and later exiled to Xinjiang, where they lived in poor conditions for 16 years.
After the death of Mao Zedong and the end of the Cultural Revolution, the family returned to Beijing in 1976. Ai enrolled in the Beijing Film Academy, where he studied animation. Given a rare opportunity for overseas study while China was still largely closed to Western influence, he moved to America from 1981 to 1993. He lived in Philadelphia and Berkeley, eventually moving to New York where he studied art, but also, by his account, whiled away his time playing cards and working at odd jobs like collecting rubbish and doing demolition.
He also met and became close to the beat poet Allen Ginsberg and was enchanted by pop-art stylist Andy Warhol, whom he still idolizes. Ai breaks into a big smile when he hears that his exhibit at Tang Gallery is being promoted alongside a major show of Warhol's works at a companion gallery at the River City complex. The pair have plenty in common. "Ai Weiwei is the Andy Warhol of China," said Maggio. "Whether you like him or don't like him or his art, you have to pay attention to him."
China undoubtedly still tracks its most famous exiled artist. After probing into the Sichuan tragedy, he had numerous run-ins with the authorities, and was arrested, beaten and banned from art shows. Even in exile, he said, Beijing continues to cast a mighty shadow over his work. Take "Coronation." Despite keen global interest, his groundbreaking documentary has not been picked up by a big distributor, and has been shunned by many major film festivals.
"Our film has been constantly refused, by the film festivals: Venice, Toronto, even the New York Film Festival," he said, bemoaning the blatant censorship. "All those film festivals, they're trying to survive, and the only way they can survive is to get into the Chinese market," he added. "This film about Wuhan, and the disaster, really affected the global situation, and we are still in the middle of it. ... There's no reason to just refuse it. I mean, they have 100 films to be shown and they cannot add one more? You know something is wrong there."
Apinan Poshyananda, chief executive and artistic director of the BAB, confirmed that pressure was applied to have Ai dropped from the event, which is running in 10 locations around the Thai capital until the end of January. Included are works from Anish Kapoor and Yoko Ono, and 80 other artists, including four from China. A delegation of Chinese artists came with officials from China during the planning stage of the BAB, and asked that Ai be dropped from the program, said Apinan. "We said we couldn't do that, we have ethics -- and they understood."
In any case, Apinan said the work that Ai chose fits the BAB's theme: Escape Routes. "This exhibit is about issues of the world: immigration, diaspora and humanity," he said. "We told our partners in China it wasn't criticism of China and they understood."
The exhibit fills a hall at Bangkok Art and Culture Center, one of the BAB's main venues. One wall is covered in photographs of refugees taken by the artist. For his 2017 film, "Human Flow," Ai says he visited 40 camps in two dozen countries, interviewing 600 refugees.
The BAB also includes protest art by artists in Thailand, now seeing the biggest anti-government street demonstrations since a 2014 coup installed the present prime minister. "This is the role of art, to stimulate discussion and offer ideas," said Apinan, a former Thai minister of culture. "Art can be part of the facility for discussion and understanding."
Amplifying their voices, leading artists featured in the BAB including Ai issued a statement condemning police crackdowns and supporting peaceful protest in Thailand. "As artists, we thrive in a society that supports our ability to speak out and speak to the times in which we live. Such a society is one that meets calls for progressive change not with a crackdown but a commitment to building understanding, dialogue and collectivity," they noted.
Ai is widely heralded for using his art for social advocacy. "I think he's done an extraordinary job of attracting attention to issues from the Sichuan earthquake to international crises like the flow of refugees to Europe," said Sophie Richardson, China director of Human Rights Watch, a nongovernmental organization. "He's a singular figure," she added. "Few others in the China art community have been so adept in using and sharing their platforms to advocate for social justice and change."
But how does Ai see himself, as artist or activist? He chuckled. "I see myself as a little piece of a shattered mirror. It reflects whatever is around it. And even though it's shattered, it still reflects the partial reality," he said. "That's why I'm fascinated to see, you know, 'who's Ai Weiwei, and what is he trying to do?' ... This gives me a little game to enjoy. To see how far this guy can go, and how ridiculous he can be."