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A still from @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz
A still from @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz

Director Cheryl Haines on making a doc about the radical art of Ai Weiwei

The filmmaker discusses how art can be a catalyst for change and the fundamental human need for communication as Yours Truly gets its UK premiere

Back in 2011, Cheryl Haines visited her friend, artist Ai Weiwei who had recently been detained by the Chinese authorities. He had spoken out against his government’s numerous human rights violations, and as a result, was imprisoned for 81 days. Upon his release, Weiwei asked Haines how she could help bring his art to a wider audience.

“What if I brought you a prison?” Haines asked.

This simple idea would mark the beginning of the revolutionary exhibition @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz. Curated by Haines in 2014, the project involved making 176 LEGO portraits of political prisoners from across the world – from Chelsea Manning to Edward Snowden, and many more – and connecting them to over 900,000 visitors by sending them postcards in an installation titled Yours Truly. Set on the site of one of America’s most notorious prisons, Alcatraz, the project commented on the fragility of human rights, and the freedoms we take for granted.

Now, Haines makes her directorial debut with Ai Weiwei: Yours Truly, which looks at the life and work of the radical artist, and the journey behind the seminal exhibition in 2014. Ahead of its premiere at the Raindance Film Festival in London on 28 September, Dazed caught up with the film’s director to talk about the role art can play in shifting cultural attitudes and how compassion shapes the human experience.

“One of the most powerful aspects of this project was how far its reach was” – Cheryl Haines

Why, out of all of Ai Weiwei's projects, did you want to create a documentary about this one?

Cheryl Haines: During my work as curator of @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz, it became very apparent that this exhibition was ground-breaking, in part because it represented so many firsts. @Large was the first large scale exhibition of its kind organised in a US National Park, and the first such project on the island of Alcatraz. It was the first exhibition in which Ai Weiwei engaged viewers in a global dialogue that extended far beyond China, addressing the plight of prisoners of conscience in 22 countries. It was the first time that the artist created so many new works in response to issues concerning human rights, freedom of expression, and the role that communication plays in helping to create a more just society.

The site and the artist were so aligned that it only became clear how much synergy there was between them as the project unfolded. I had no intention of making a documentary until midway through the exhibition when it became abundantly clear that visitors were fully engaged in learning about the prisoners of conscious and were eager to reach out to them via Yours Truly. As a result, nearly 100,000 postcards were sent. The sense of purpose transmitted by that small act of kindness was undeniable, and I wanted to share it as widely as possible—as only the medium of film can do.

Weiwei was able to stage an exhibition in Alcatraz while still being detained in China – does this prove the point made at the end of the film that no state can ever truly imprison an individual?

Cheryl Haines: Curating and installing such a site-specific exhibition with an artist who could not visit the site was a very challenging experience. However, one of the things that was most inspiring about this process was that despite these limitations, Weiwei was able to create a deeply moving and articulate experience, addressing all the most important issues suggested by Alcatraz. Though physically constrained by the Chinese government, Weiwei was not psychologically constrained. His courage upon the global stage and dedication to continue speaking out on behalf of others, regardless of any personal cost, supports the notion that there are many ways to be free.

Like Weiwei, so many brave prisoners of conscience have held the course through their protest, detainment, and release – a cycle that in many cases is repeated. Yet their indomitable spirits continue to fight for their beliefs, even in the face of ever-present pressure and danger.

What sparked the decision to make the portraits out of LEGO bricks?

Cheryl Haines: Ai Weiwei is an artist who has an acute understanding of the physical world. His choice of materials is always a direct response to the conceptual underpinning of an artwork. One of the overriding principles of this exhibition was how important it was to Weiwei to reach the youth, the next generation of activists, the people that will be responsible for shaping the future of our society. What better material than LEGO? It is universally understood, it’s colourful, and it invites interaction and participation. Given the interchangeable components, one could also think of LEGO bricks as representing our common humanity. At the same time, the LEGOs also suggested the pixelated photographs of prisoners of conscience used to create their portraits, which were primarily the only such images to be found online, so it seemed like an appropriate material to depict them.

While you may not have expected the activists to respond to the Yours Truly postcard campaign, how did this highlight some of the project’s central themes of human compassion and our need to communicate?

Cheryl Haines: Hearing back from the prisoners and their families highlighted the fact that communication is a fundamental human right, and underscored the fact that even the receipt of a postcard from a stranger could serve as a vital reminder that these prisoners had not been forgotten. In fact, one of the most powerful aspects of this project was how far its reach was. We were able to engage up to 5,000 visitors a day. Through their experience at the exhibition, they were not only able to consider their stance on human rights, but also to have an opportunity to feel as though they had a voice themselves. One doesn’t have to be an established human rights activists or a famous politician to make a difference in someone else’s life.

Why was it important to hear the voices of the prisoners of conscience in the Stay Tuned installation, and how does it reinforce the importance of protest and expression in Weiwei’s work?

Cheryl Haines: When a ruling body seeks to strip people of their human rights, one of the first things it will do is to remove the ability of its citizens to communicate, whether within a prison or in a repressed country. In the case of Alcatraz, it was a silent prison for many years, making it all the more harsh of an environment.

Considering the important role that communication plays in fostering a just society, Weiwei felt it was essential to address the notion of being silenced, whether by being incarcerated or by being denied access to the internet or any other means of connectivity with one’s fellow citizens.

By choosing to highlight people like the Tibetan singer Lolo, who used song to call for his people’s independence from China; or the Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot, opponents of Vladimir Putin’s government; or the Robben Island singers imprisoned during South Africa’s apartheid era, Weiwei allowed their voices to resonate so profoundly in these cells of isolation, serving as proof that the human voice cannot be silenced.

Was there anything you learned about yourself while making this?

Cheryl Haines: I think for all of us that were involved in the project, one of the most powerful and moving things was to learn the stories of all these prisoners of conscience. Sadly, the 176 individuals ultimately included in the show represent only a small sampling of the cases that Amnesty International shared with us during the process. They were carefully and thoughtfully selected with the hope that it would not cause them any additional difficulty. But there were so many stories that we were unaware of and so many more still. I think that’s probably what inspired me most in making this film.

I once heard Weiwei in an interview a number of years ago, when he was asked why he continues his fight. He simply said: “If I don’t use all means at my disposal to help others, then I should be ashamed.” I have to say that I’m with him on that stance. The process of making this film has solidified my position.