Extreme Documentary: Ai Weiwei, Li Ning, and Voyeurism in Chinese Cinema

By Maya Eva Gunst Rudolph

A long time practitioner and advocate of self-documentation, Ai Weiwei made online waves last week when he installed a set of “self-surveillance” cameras to document his life and work via a live feed. Buttressing the demands for “transparency and openness” that characterize so much of Ai’s work, this project launched a tongue-in-cheek reaction to the government surveillance cameras that surround Ai’s home and workshop. Only days after mounting his latest “installation,” though, Ai was ordered to remove the cameras and the internet feed ceased to live.

The artist sleeps tonight on "Weiwei Cam"

In the aftermath of its short existence, the so-called “Weiwei Cam” has been discussed as everything from an exercise in artistic narcissism to a wry subversion of the Chinese government’s Big Brother-ing. It seems undeniable that at its crux, the camera project, launched to commemorate Ai’s eighty-one day detention last year, served as a kind of self-aware self-policing. After all, what harm could befall a man with the world’s eyes on him?

With the Weiwei cam censored last week, Ai tweeted, “The cameras have been shut down. Bye-bye to all the voyeurs,” sparking another school of thought on his act of radical transparency. A documentary filmmaker whose work often chronicles his own movements and artistic and activist efforts, Ai is no stranger to inviting public eyes to his personal dealings. For a figure such as Ai Weiwei for whom documentation is both a voluntary and involuntary way of life, much can be gleaned from this most recent experiment, which reflects a larger tendency of self-examination and voyeuriusm in Chinese documentary film. In effect, Ai Weiwei’s most recent project seems to fit into the greater scheme of self-documentation in Chinese cinema and a trend of what might be called extreme documentary.

"Tape" (dir. Li Ning)

In Li Ning‘s hefty and often brutally personal documentary Tape, there is little of Li’s life left to viewer’s imagination. With his camera rolling, Li argues with his wife, laments his financial ruin, engages in all manner of literal and figurative contemplation of his lower anatomy, strips himself bare and endures the waters of experimentation, physical anguish, and creative guilt. With unflinching intimacy and a running time upwards of three hours, Tape should be a struggle, or at least a challenge to watch, but the viewer is more often than not transfixed by the profound and immediate access to Li Ning’s innermost life. This is, in Lacanian or Mullveyan terms, pure cinema, for Li Ning entices a rare and complete voyeurism. Li is no doubt both puppet and puppet-master, the cinematographer and editor of his own life; the choreographer and the dance itself. He is, like Ai Weiwei, a performer whose personal exposure before the audience is more than simply a negotiation or a collapse of the subject-object paradigm, it’s a kind of conversion.

The notion of extreme transparency is not limited to Li Ning’s raw self-exposure or Ai Weiwei’s exhibition of personal politics through daily activity, but seems to extend to a good deal of contemporary Chinese documentary. Perhaps some of this self-reflection is wrapped up in the concept of jiancha, a term used during the Cultural Revolution to mean self-criticism, but which suggests a renewed approach to examining the individual within the turbulent confines of Chinese society. Broadcasting oneself to invite indiscriminate voyeurism, despite the edge of narcissism and scopophelia suggested inherently, is a radical act in a society where the individual remains so conceptually and practically marginalized. Young Chinese documentary filmmakers, from Wu Haohao to those involved in Wu Wenguang‘s memory project, are increasingly turning cameras on themselves, their own memories and bodies.

The audience’s intimacy with the subject/object likewise might suggest, in some cases, a directness and purity of narrative. It seems, though, that in these filmmaker’s efforts there is a kind of suspension of control that disables complete narrative authority. In Li Ning’s film especially, it’s apparent that the control the filmmaker possesses over the film is no different than the control the individual possesses over himself. But it’s the margins of this control, the unpredictable and highly vulnerable tenor of this willed presentation, that makes Tape, the Weiwei Cam, and many more such documentary events so electric–so extreme.

Ai Weiwei may have said goodbye to his internet voyeurs for now, but in the greater realm of Chinese documentary, there’s plenty more to see.