I think the analogy of stuntman works well for Ai Weiwei, particularly in the sense that the presence of the stuntman calls to mind the kind of Hollywood bang-em-up-good flick that is 1. entertaining 2. light on intellectual substance. I hasten to add that I don’t find Ai himself lacking in this substance. Quite the contrary. I do, however, have some questions about both his viewing audience and the body of commentary that such audience increasingly has become.
But to further unpack (or pursue) the analogy, Hollywood spectacles that feature stuntmen are often engineered, indeed “authored” by a boardroom full of executives bent principally on bottom-line transaction. They invest in the production, and expect to make money in return. The commodity in Ai Weiwei’s case is more complicated, and worth considering at length. What, I am assuming, a good portion of non-Chinese spectators of The Situation (another apt epithet, if it weren’t already in use) glean essentially is a sense of self importance, not to mention complacency, at being in a “free” land where Google and other niceties of internet intercourse (FB) go on unfettered. Seeing Ai arrested and having therefore the occasion to exclaim outrage reminds people in the free world that they live in the free world. Ai, in this sense, is consumable as age-old re-affirmation that: “at least I’m not as bad off as that guy.”
This is also to reiterate that the “stunt” carries with it some considerable risk. Ai clearly places himself in danger, over and over, as though its just part of a day’s work. We watch that “work” with a mixture of fascination and self-satisfied commiseration, careful not to become too aware of the fact that what really matters to the viewer is that its not actually s/he getting tossed off the building.