The documentaries of tortured artists

A slew of new films at Hot Docs focus on pushing the boundaries of the creative process

Art of darkness

Dan Chung/The Guardian

We’re in the ivy-walled Beijing studio of Ai Weiwei, China’s most famous artist and activist. He’s huddled with his colleagues around a model of a bamboo installation proposed for London’s Tate Modern gallery when a ginger cat ambles across the table and casually destroys it. The artist just lets it happen, as if amused by the cat’s verdict. That’s the opening scene of Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, a stunning new documentary by 27-year-old American director Alison Klayman. What we don’t see is Ai walking into another room, where he contemplates a two-metre-high pile of ceramic sunflower seeds made for a previous exhibit. “He was just wordlessly staring at them,” Klayman recalls. “Finally he said, ‘I really like this. How many could we make? Do we have enough time?’ ”

That eureka moment was the spark for an extraordinary project that took almost two years to complete. Later, the film shows the Tate’s vast Turbine Hall carpeted with 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds—roughly one for every 13 inhabitants of China—hand-painted by 1,600 artisans in Jingdezhen, the country’s porcelain capital. No two were the same. The exhibit could be seen as a statement about collective labour, famine and individual freedom. But Ai is not one to reduce art to crude propaganda. This, after all, is the guy who helped design the inspired Bird’s Nest stadium for Beijing’s Olympics, then denounced it and the Games as propaganda vehicles for a totalitarian state.

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry will be screened this week at the opening gala of Toronto’s Hot Docs, North America’s largest documentary festival. It leads a program that’s unusually rich with films about artists on the edge—from painters and puppeteers to musicians and filmmakers. “It’s really interesting to see where people have to go to make art,” says Hot Docs programming director Charlotte Cook. “We had a huge influx of films about the artistic process.”

Many are tales of frustration, folly and flat-out derangement—from Francophrenia, which shows actor James Franco falling through the looking glass of his own fame—to Beware of Mr. Baker, a portrait of legendary rock drummer Ginger Baker, who bashes the filmmaker in the face with a polo mallet. Docs about visual artists include Pushwagner, about a 71-year-old Norwegian cult figure who is a raving alcoholic crank; Beauty Is Embarrassing, the manic odyssey of pop-art prankster Wayne White, once an Emmy-winning puppeteer on Peewee’s Playhouse; and Aida: A Natural-Born Artist, about a depressed Japanese painter fretting over a giant canvas of cookie-cutter schoolgirls.

But none of these films is more powerful, provocative or essential than Ai Weiwei. While other artists wrestle with inner demons, Ai is tangling with a totalitarian state, working on a scale that includes vast installations, photo exhibits, guerrilla documentaries and tweets, which he fires off like Confucian koans. (“There are no outdoor sports as graceful as throwing stones at a dictatorship . . . and no interactive communications as exciting as the gang-fight style in the digital world.”)

Ai Weiwei shows how the transparency of social media, with its myriad facets, is transforming the documentary genre. There’s a wonderfully absurd scene of an outdoor dinner party, which Ai convenes on a restaurant patio, inviting fans to join him via Twitter. When police show up and start shooting video of the gathering, the artist’s own videographer gets right in their face and shoots back, while Ai snaps photos on his phone and Klayman’s camera films everyone filming everyone else. “You could call Weiwei an open-source documentary subject,” says the director. “He’s constantly creating the news story that surrounds him.”

Klayman spends almost three years watching Ai’s story heat up as the artist plays cat and mouse with the state. After the government shuts down his website in 2009, he vaults the great firewall of China to subvert censorship on Twitter. We see him taunt the plainclothes police who follow him constantly. Video rolls when he’s beaten by police in a hotel room, when authorities demolish his Shanghai studio with a bulldozer—and when he emerges, thin and shaken, from 81 days of solitary confinement after his 2011 arrest on allegations of tax fraud.

Now on parole, Ai is forbidden to talk to Western media—a rule he often violates, blaming his lack of self-discipline. (“C’mon, I can’t even lose weight!” he told The Economist.) A trickster with Zen gravitas, Ai has created his own cult of personality as a kind of an aphoristic anti-Mao, or bully Buddha. This month, he set up surveillance cameras in his home and streamed a 24-hour video feed online, his riposte to the police surveillance cameras outside. The government took down his website within two days. But even as he fights for freedom of expression, Ai admits that state censorship fuels his art. In a parole-breaking column in last week’s Guardian, he wrote, “without censorship it would be much less interesting. I often see my cats put their toys in an area littered with obstacles, and their play becomes interesting and dramatic.”

While Ai finds his edge by pushing the limits of censorship, many of the artists featured in the Hot Docs program wrestle with self-censorship. There’s no firewall blocking their freedom of expression, just the psychological rampart of their own anxiety. In Beauty Is Embarrassing, Wayne White talks about the paralyzing “shame” of being an artist: “You’re doing this thing that is very self-centred and narcissistic. The ‘who does he think he is?’ phantom is aways in my head.” But after his post-Peewee’s Playhouse burnout, White stumbles into a second career as a pop-art star by painting profane block-lettered slogans on thrift-shop landscape paintings. The biggest sellers, he says, use the F-word.

Curiously, both White and Ai—who unleashed his own F-bombs in an infamous series of middle-finger snapshots—were influenced by the feverish New York art scene of the 1980s. (You can see booming echoes of Warhol in Ai’s work, from his manufactured fakery to controversial stunts like painting a Coke logo on a neolithic Chinese vase.) But while White revels in kickass nihilism, Ai taps the same conceptual roots to stage pranks freighted with meaning—such as blanketing the wall of a Munich museum with 9,000 bright backpacks to commemorate students killed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

Some of the most compelling art docs explore process on a more intimate scale. In Her Master’s Voice, Nina Conti is tormented by the corny-creepy stigma of the ventriloquist. She’s about to give up when she inherits a brood of puppets from her late mentor and lover, Ken Campbell, then escorts them to a ventriloquist convention in Kentucky, with an excursion to a macabre museum where orphaned puppets are laid to rest. It’s uncanny to see Conti sitting on a hotel bed, improvising darkly witty banter with her travelling companions. Conti, who directed the film after studying video with a class of war correspondents, says it reaffirmed her faith in her art. “I learned to look at myself as a puppet—just one of the characters.”

Without perspective, any portrait of an artist risks slipping into a self-referential vortex. That’s what happens with Francophrenia (Or: Don’t Kill Me, I Know Where the Baby Is), a meta-documentary directed by Franco and Ian Olds. It follows the actor as he shoots an episode of the daytime soap General Hospital, playing a homicidal performance artist who is gunned down at his own gala premiere at Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art. In a whispered voice-over, the actor takes us through the maze of his ultra-method acting and the trials of celebrity, as he flips between tortured angst and godlike delusion.

Although Francophrenia falls flat, docs about artistic failure are often a treat. In the Ginger Baker film, the drummer’s scorched-earth rampage of self-destruction is so unrelenting he seems bent on sabotaging the film that’s trying to canonize him. Then there’s Despite the Gods, a cringe-worthy portrait of a director on the verge of nervous breakdown—Jennifer Lynch (David’s daughter)—struggling to shoot a Bollywood movie in India about a man-eating snake goddess. As she battles on-set chaos and her own hysteria, there comes a point, notes programmer Cook, “where she starts to realize the documentary is probably the better project.”

Every art documentary has to look beyond the bubble of the artist. Ai Weiwei towers above the others, not just because of the artist’s brilliant work, or his heroic role as China’s poster boy for free speech. It’s because he keeps pushing art beyond its boundaries, out into the world, until we can feel the weight of history in a fake sunflower seed.

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