Is Ai Weiwei’s Twitter More Important Than His Art?

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“Twitter is the most important medium of our time,” Ai Weiwei proclaims in Alison Klayman’s new documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry , and he demonstrates this repeatedly over the course of the next 91 minutes. He is China’s most famous contemporary artist, the most displeasing to its authorities, and the most accessible to the international public, both through his art and… on Twitter.

When Ai Weiwei infamously disappeared in 2011, the documentary, which Klayman first began work on as a favor to a friend, was already completed. Only the final portion of the film, edited after the fact, includes the 80 days Ai Weiwei spent under the arrest at an undisclosed location in solitary confinement, his convoluted, demonstratively suspect investigation, and the censorship and surveillance forced upon him after his eventual release — most importantly, Ai’s compulsory Twitter self-censorship… for a second there.

The film does however show what Ai did to incur such wrath in the first place. Was it has art? Was it flipping off government buildings as a gesture against blind nationalism for a photo series? Nah. Was it dropping a real Han dynasty urn to show that old culture needs to be destroyed or painting precious artifacts with Coca-Cola logos? Hmm. Was it speaking, tweeting, and making art and several freely available films against the shoddy government “tofu” construction of public schools that resulted in thousands of needless children’s deaths in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake? Of course! If you were the government, with the blame fixed firmly on you by one of your country’s most internationally well-known artists, you would be scared, too. Not Ai Weiwei.

It isn’t just the cops that recognize him, track him, and keep him under constant surveillance. Ai Weiwei is one of those artists whose face is more famous than his art, at least to the mainstream. He is known as a Twitter activist by people who have never even seen his work. When Ai was charged with “distributing pornography” after posting a photo on his blog, and his Internet legion responded by tweeting photos of themselves naked; art objects were not part of the immediate conversation, just the context.

Klayman’s documentary makes clear that Ai’s Twitter followers — 157,775 and counting — are a loyal army of fans. In one scene, they show up to dine with him after a casual tweet suggesting a location. The cops also show up to film the suspicious activity. His fans film the cops filming. The audience laughs. But this is serious. With the countless arrests of intellectuals, artists, journalists, and cultural figures who dare comment unfavorably about China’s draconian policies, it’s no wonder cops come pounding on his door. It’s no wonder cops come inside, pounding on Ai’s head. Only this artist live-tweets the attack. Instead of quietly subduing himself, he reports the police brutality and documents it. This is where the film gets truly riveting — Ai in action.

He tweets photos of himself undergoing brain surgery from what he says is the effect of damage from his uniformed attacker. He finds him, that very police officer, and live-tweets the confrontation. It is the Ai Weiwei show. Yet, this is far from routine narcissism or exhibitionism inherent to the Twitter medium. This is dangerous stuff. This is a demonstration that what happens will become public. There are blogs, pictures, tweets — a prolific trail of crumbs for the AiFans, the devoted cult-like mass that volunteers to help him do what the government won’t — actually make accounts of just how many children died in the collapsed “tofu skin” schools, for example. They will RT gossip. They will worship him. Twitter is his medium.

Ai continues to make highly accessible art that is difficult to misinterpret, but with every tweet, with the very existence of his account, he proves its urgency. He’s tweeted at least a dozen times as I was writing this. Each tweet is an obnoxious rocket, signaling to his presence, his persistence. It indeed says something about the immediacy of the medium, doesn’t it? But does it overshadow his other mediums?