The Artist Walks a Thin, Shifting Line between Real and Fake in ‘Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case’

[15 May 2014]

By Cynthia Fuchs

PopMatters Film and TV Editor

The Top of the Wave

“Fish in the sea you know how I feel,
River running free you know how I feel,
Blossom on the tree you know how I feel.”
—Nina Simone, “Feeling Good”

“It’s quite extreme condition. Even if I explained to you, you wouldn’t understand, because you have to be like that to understand.” Ai Weiwei is walking. Specifically, he’s walking in a parking lot near the park where he used to walk, a park near his studio in Beijing. He walks a lot in Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case, Andreas Johnsen’s impressionistic record of Ai’s life since his detention for nearly three months in 2011. He used to walk in the park, the film reports, “due to his high blood pressure.” Now he walks in the parking lot, the film tells you in an intertitle, “so he can see if anyone is following him.”

Someone is always following Ai Weiwei. The film reminds you repeatedly, with low angle shots of surveillance cameras and longer shots of cars parked outside Ai’s studio, and also, during one sequence that’s one part antic and two parts unnerving, when Ai has his driver do a u-turn and begin following the car that was following them. In this recurring reference to surveillance, Johnsen’s documentary recalls and rhymes with Alison Klayman’s Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry.

At the end of that film, Ai was arrested at Beijing Capital International Airport and released after 81 days, a lost time marked by an image of his return home, telling journalists he was unable to talk to them and asking them to please understand. The new film opens on that image again, as the artist speaks briefly—“I cannot say anything, I’m on bail, you know”—just before he closes the metal door to his studio. That studio, you’re reminded with an insert of the sign on the wall, is called “Fake Ltd.”

The thin and shifting line between real and fake is at the center of The Fake Case, and Ai describes it rather perfectly circuitously: “The case is against the company Fake.” He says, “It’s a fake case about a fake company. The fake case is a real case, but a fake case, fabricated.” That case has to do with charges of tax evasion, and he must wait throughout the film for the Beijing Local Tax Authority to make his lawyers’ presentations impossible.

The case also has to do with the anxiety this dissident makes for the government; as he recalls during another non-interview set in a restaurant, the camera cutting between Ai in tasteful evening lighting and a chef building delicate, concise pieces of sushi: “They said they were holding me for subversion of state power.” The phrase is at once abstract and arbitrary, vague and exacting, a means to let Ai know that he might be arrested at any time, and released or maybe not released. The state has control.

And still he speaks, each scene an instance of his grasp of what that means. A friend, the sculptor Li Zhanyang, reminds him, “Once you told me that that political artists are not usually artists.” Ai sees it differently now, he says, sees his entire existence now as a political act, to be recorded and disseminated, to move his followers (no longer on Twitter, as he’s not allowed to tweet) and those who believe. “I’m not a political artist,” he assesses. “I’m just political.”

He can’t give interviews, he tells more than one journalist, and yet he does, sort of. “If I don’t show my voice, if I don’t act as I believe,” he tells reporter Silke Ballweg,  “Then I’m dead already.” She sits at his table, her recorder in hand. “This kind of expression, it’s not only necessary for artist, but for everybody to show they are alive, to speak out.” The alternative is silence, he insists, noting that generations have been frightened into silence in China.

Among those not silenced were Ai’s father, the poet Ai Qing (denounced by the government during its “anti-rightist” purges), and his mother, Gao Ying. Ai visits with her here, the camera cuts between mother and son on her sofa and TV images of a government assembly, officials clapping for one another and speaking into microphones, their blue suits crisp and their faces frozen. Though he tells the camera it’s difficult to ask his mother about his detention, Ai does so, and though she doesn’t mention the family’s exile for 16 years, she doesn’t have to.

Now 80 years old, Gao Ying suggests that even if they didn’t tell him to believe one way or another, they showed him by example. “I think our family has always been living on the tip of a wave,” she says, “and Chinese society is like a huge wave. It goes up and down, and our family is always in danger on the top of the wave.”

The camera is close on Gao Ying’s face as she speaks, her voice steady. She’s as stoic and as careful as her son, and he listens quietly. Listening is a form of politics, just as recording must now be. Ai goes nowhere without his cell phone, which he uses to text, to call, to shoot video and take pictures. He takes pictures of the stages of his newest work of politics as art, S.A.C.R.E.D., a six piece fiberglass installation that by film’s end is shipped off to six countries in six crates, until the pieces come together for the 2013 Venice Biennale. 

The dioramas recount Ai’s stay in prison, with fake Ai on a bed, fake guards watching over, fake urinal in the corner, and fake food boxes on the table. At one point he’s unable to remember exactly how many boxes were delivered each day. “Strange,” he tells an assistant. “I had it yesterday.” He begins to walk, again. “Every day I had a lunch box, but I forget if it was one or two, because the mind try to forget everything, you know.”

Forgetting and remembering become part of the same process, just as speaking and not speaking, recording and not recording. Whenever he goes outside now, people follow him with phones and cameras, more often people who mean to witness abuses and oppression than those who mean to commit it. And so you see, Ai is “just political”.

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