‘AI Weiwei: Yours Truly’ - Paying Respect to the Man, Artist, and Legend

Sandra Bertrand



If you are looking for the definitive portrait of one of the world’s most famous conceptual artists, you will not find it in director Cheryl Haines’s Ai Weiwei: Yours Truly documentary.


In all fairness, to do justice to Ai's prolific output of protest art alone would be like trying to shoot the moon and all the stars as well in one volley. That Haines succeeded in the realizing of this one project is worthy of four stars at least.


In 2013, Ai was incarcerated for 81 days as a Chinese dissident. Three months after his release, hopeful curator Haines traveled to Beijing to visit the artist in his studio, where he was under house arrest.  Her goal was to persuade him to create a work on freedom and human rights abuses.  Her venue of choice?  Alcatraz.  (As a former top security prison in the San Francisco Bay, it was shut down in 1963.)   



Ambitious?  Yes.  But chasing an artist known for many installations such as Seeds, where 100 million sunflower seeds were laid out to symbolize the brute conformity of his heritage or Straight, with collapsed steel rods signifying a Sichuan earthquake that left thousands of children dead because of the poor construction of their schoolhouses—he could prove to be the right subject for her.    


For Ai, he was obviously tired of “making installations I can’t attend.” Through virtual walkthroughs and a reverential persistence on Haines’s part, a plan was put into action.   The exhibition would be in two parts: The first, Trace, would involve a series of pixilated portraits done with Legos to be laid out across the vast floor space of Alcatraz.  Such a project involved months of searching the internet to identify imprisoned subjects worldwide.  In Ai's words, “Many people are in prison because they want to change society.”  And people are still “disappearing.”


The second part, Yours Truly, takes up a large portion of the film’s finale, with adult visitors and children alike writing postcards to a prisoner of choice.  Binders with bios are available to the viewers.  A touching explanation is given of his father’s imprisonment when Ai was just an infant. The artist remembers the power that one postcard had on his father during that harrowing time.


Elusive as the butterflies and dragons in his creations or the cats that hover around his studio, Ai is above all, a humanitarian.  And however jarring the journey as Haines and her subject zigzag back and forth in the telling, she picked the right man for this moment.



The film was released on July 8, 2020 in Virtual Cinemas. Ai was under house arrest in Beijing at the time.



Author Bio:

Sandra Bertrand is Highbrow Magazine’s chief art critic.


For Highbrow Magazine

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Images courtesy of First Run Features
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