The 400-Word Review - Ai Weiewi: Yours Truly
By Sean Collier
July 18, 2020
The exhibition depicted in “Ai Weiwei: Yours Truly” is so remarkably perfect — so stunningly appropriate — I almost can’t believe it happened.
Weiwei, of course, is an artist and dissident who was briefly imprisoned by the Chinese government. An international outcry led to his release — and, for several years, the revocation of his right to travel. Weiwei, who has since relocated to Berlin, was then a highly visible, internationally renowned artist, unable to leave the country that had persecuted him.
Now, consider Alcatraz, the former prison in San Francisco Bay. Now a tourist destination, the once-infamous jail was doubly cruel for its location; inmates could see and hear the cosmopolitan life of Downtown San Francisco over the water, locked in a picturesque location they could neither appreciate nor forget.
A nominally free artist who can’t travel; a prison which punishes with reminders of freedom. That’s a pairing.
Weiwei seems to have been acutely aware of the resonance. When American curator Cheryl Haines secured portions of Alcatraz Island for a Weiwei exhibition, he began working on “@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz,” a mixed-media installation focused on political prisoners around the world.
“Yours Truly” depicts the conception, construction and display of these works. For most of its brief running time, it’s a fairly presentational depiction of the creative process and planning of the exhibit; Haines, who also co-directed the film with Gina Leibrecht, mostly stays out of the way. When patrons start arriving at Alcatraz, however, the film becomes something close to profound.
The centerpiece of “@Large” is a series of portraits of Weiwei’s fellow dissidents, constructed mostly in low-resolution images made of LEGO bricks. Guests have the opportunity to write letters to the prisoners in question; “Yours Truly” dwells on the words, thoughts and drawings that guests send. This is striking material, as we not only hear the messages but also interrogate why certain prisoners and their stories resonate with well-wishers around the world.
The powerful, third-act punch in “Yours Truly” arrives when the letters make their way to the prisoners themselves. While many are unreachable, a handful (including American dissident Chelsea Manning) are interviewed and handed messages from exhibition guests. There’s great resonance in these moments, as we watch simple yet heartful postcards give strength to internationally known thinkers and activists. In these closing scenes, “Yours Truly” is elevated beyond a rote art documentary and becomes something more.
My Rating: 7/10
“Ai Weiwei: Yours Truly” is available via virtual-cinema services.