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OP-ED: Ai Weiwei’s pandemic masterpiece

  • Published at 08:55 pm September 3rd, 2020
People wearing face masks following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak walk at a shopping mall in Hong Kong, China July 20, 2020. REUTERS/Lam Yik
File photo: People wearing face masks following the coronavirus outbreak walk at a shopping mall in Hong Kong, China July 20, 2020 Reuters

Is China’s handling of Covid-19 something to be emulated?

Cleaving through the disinformation bombarding the world during our pandemic predicament, Chinese art superstar Ai Weiwei’s new documentary is an astonishing feat of truth-telling, and a landmark in the cinema of conscience. 

With extraordinary timing in how it was made (on location, but Ai is in exile in Europe), as well as the juncture of its release at aiweiwei.com, Coronation ranks amongst the most important artworks of the contemporary era. The first full-length movie depicting the Covid-19 era is also its pre-eminent masterpiece. 

Everyone who can, everywhere in the world, should watch Coronation. 

The documentary begins in a snowstorm on the road to Wuhan on the night of January 23, the precise date that lockdown was imposed. We are inside a vehicle churning towards the city, alongside an anxious couple. The film ends on April 8, when the city re-opened. 

The artist’s website says he intended to examine “the political spectre of Chinese state control from the first to the last day of the Wuhan lockdown [and] the state’s brutally efficient, militarized response to control the virus.”

It concludes: “Coronation clearly depicts the Chinese crisis management and social control machine -- through surveillance, ideological brainwashing, and brute determination to control every aspect of society” and “the result is a society lacking trust, transparency, and respect for humanity.”

But while those aspects certainly exist in this subtle, artful documentary, there are other eye-opening aspects that will be apprehended differently in other parts of the world. 

In our South Asian countries, for example, Coronation demonstrates our own governmental attempts at totalitarianism -- while individually malevolent -- are barely kindergarten-level compared to what is happening across the borders in China. 

In terms of crisis response, that can be a bad thing. 

It’s why Covid-19 rampages unfettered in the sub-continent, while our giant neighbour is already back into its (admittedly unverifiable) growth story. We may not like to admit it -- and the West has made it official state practice to deny this -- but there’s much to admire in China’s ability to rally nigh-unimaginably immense resources to tackle its problems.

Ai told Deutsche Welle: “China is probably the only nation that could achieve that with such speed and spirit. You can see how the state built the infrastructure, including the emergency field hospitals, and equipped those on the frontlines with the necessary rescue equipment. Those details surprised me and are a profound revelation of human behaviour under authoritarian control. Those positive, objective parts about a very highly controlled authoritarian state are difficult to film.” 

Of course, there are many entirely unacceptable ramifications to this level of state control, as evident in China’s genocidal programs in Xinjiang and other provinces. Ai says: “China has created a society which has no trust, the controlling party has never gained legitimacy through the people’s recognition but rather through police force, heavy propaganda, and by limiting balanced information.”

He told The New York Times: “It’s not just how efficiently you make decisions but what you deliver to human society. China has no answers there.”

Thus, if there is something the rest of the world must immediately try to learn -- and emulate -- from Coronation, it isn’t China’s battleship response, but the remarkable integrity, humanity, and determination of Ai Weiwei. 

No country has any direct equivalent of this indomitable, irreverent artist, but India is notably bereft. Its arts world is riddled with fraudulence, and artists co-opted by an especially dubious marketplace. 

One exception is Orijit Sen, pioneering graphic novelist and designer, who keeps producing searing political images. He told me: “Dissent in our times is not a matter of choice. Staying silent in the face of systemic tyranny is like committing a kind of mass suicide. Our collective existence -- communities, values, hopes, freedoms -- is being continuously threatened by the politico-corporate masters of the world.”

Sen says: “There are only two possible ways to respond -- either bend down in abject submission to their immoral authority, or stand up and dissent every day and at every turn, regardless of the cost you may have to pay. I really don’t understand why more artists in India are not dissenting more visibly. Ai Weiwei offers us a voice and a language with which we can all talk back to authority.”

In this arena, Bangladesh is ahead of India due to the singular moral leadership of Shahidul Alam, who, like Ai, has paid an enormous personal price, but has always refused to back down.

Alam told me: “Art is not the object in which it is bound, but the enactment of the idea it represents. Ai Weiwei has succeeded in liberating the concept from the form. Art is merely the springboard he leaps from. And if art cannot be a window into unchartered waters, then it has failed. At a time when the world has to be re-imagined, this is how we have to transport ourselves to new realms. The virus thrives through its ability to mutate. Artists, by helping us to adapt and evolve, provide the ultimate antidote.” 

Vivek Menezes is a writer based in Goa, India.

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