Art is at its most vital when it is harnessed to call attention to an injustice … and maybe overthrow an oppressive government. Art has been part of revolutions in the past. Look at the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia in 1989. The people would end up electing one of the revolution’s leaders, playwright Václav Havel, as the country’s president. You wouldn’t know it by the popular fluff that passes for art in contemporary America (I personally believe a lot of it is responsible for numbing the masses into passive “sheeple”), but art has an amazing power that still matters to this day. Take the case of Ai Weiwei, a Chinese conceptual artist and documentary filmmaker who would so upset Chinese government officials, he would wind up jailed for 81 days without due process, cut off from even communicating with his family.
Taking her interning experience from working on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” Alison Klayman went to China to film Ai at work and at an amazing turning point in his life as an artist. Shot from 2008 – 2010, the film Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry points out Ai did not come from the government’s Central Academy of Fine Arts , yet he designed the famous Bird’s Nest Stadium that was the center of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. For an “unofficial” artist in that autocratic regime to have such validity makes for an amazing statement. Before that, his work would even appear in national exhibitions alongside other Chinese artists that were basically the product of a government-controlled education system. When asked by an interviewer for his party affiliation Ai replies, “None. I’m an independent artist,” which probably explains why police not only follow him and record him on video but also intimidate him. The government has even installed 15 surveillance cameras around is home/studio in Beijing.
But, as the film chronicles, Ai has found freedom in his independent way of thinking. It is his thinking that allowed him to see through the twisted control Chinese officials have over their people, a revelation that seemed to come to Ai during his role designing the Bird’s Nest. Residents were ordered to smile at visitors to the Olympics and even forced out of their homes to make way for the games. This did not sit well with Ai and he spoke out. Here is that video:
A fellow artist tells the documentarian: “Weiwei has a hooligan style, like the Chinese government. So he knows how to deal with other hooligans.”
Like a good journalist, Klayman knows to keep out of the way of her subject and never inserts herself in the film, showing this figure the best kind of respect. Klayman also spends little time with talking heads. She presents these years as a kinetic action movie that happens to feature an artist as its hero, and art as his weapon. Her camera simply observes the artist as he assimilates activism into his aesthetic.
Interspersed with her interviews and moments of Ai’s action, whether directing his next project or Tweeting his every move (more for his own protection than promotional reasons), outside Western journalists come in and ask Ai questions. Ai fans from China show up after he Tweets what restaurant he is headed to, and they dine nearby in silent solidarity as police badger him, asking when he will be done eating.
Klayman weaves in footage from Ai’s own documentary works, including one illustrating his efforts to chronicle the identities of victims who died in the Sichuan earthquake of 2008. He joined a team of volunteers seeking to document every fatality in that quake, estimated at 70,000, something the government preferred to keep secret. Of those victims, over 5,000 were children who died in schools built in such a shoddy manner activists use the term “tofu” to describe their construction. Through such horror Ai creates spare but moving pieces of art that are both grand and minimal.
Though Ai seems to taunt the limits of his “rights,” he recognizes the danger of confronting and testing the government. He thinks of it as a means of survival. “I act brave because I know the danger is really there,” he says. “If I don’t act, the danger becomes stronger.” He does speak English, as he spent more than 10 years in New York City, starting in the early eighties. He immersed himself in the art scene and the place definitely seemed to have a positive influence on his creativity. Ironically, the Chinese government was partly responsible for his trip, as it sought to loosen restrictions through cultural exchange programs, allowing Ai to travel and settle in there for a spell.
As much as his “hooligan” style of expression has become a manner of survival for him personally, he also believes nothing will change if he does not do what he does. He understands his role in stirring up some of the Chinese. The film sets this up beautifully at the beginning through a metaphor via Ai’s cats. He says he has 40 running around his studio, yet only one of them knows how to open doors. He says, had he not ever met this cat who can open doors, he wouldn’t know cats could have the power to open them. There is a human drama in the film, too. The birth of a son makes him reevaluate the risks he takes, and when he is finally released from jail, he seems shaken, and you can feel the energy of his creativity has been deflated.
Ai has no delusions of his efforts. He says he believes it will take several generations for China to see a fair change. The key is to keep the voices alive, to never be sorry. At an exhibit at the Tate Modern simply titled “Sunflower Seeds” he had 100 million had-painted porcelain sunflower seeds shipped in and spread across a gallery floor.
To him, he said, each seed represented an individual thought. He steps out to walk on them in front of a camera. The scene unravels from a distance, from another camera that seems to catch the action from the ground, highlighting other sunflower seeds that are not touched, cushioned by distance and the masses of seeds in the same space. It’s a highly conceptual work that brilliantly emphasizes his thinking of the futility of a government that thinks it can control the entire population by crushing the voices of a certain few. The piece could have easily been titled “100 million thoughts,” but that would have been too subversive.
Never Sorry is a strong documentary because Ai is such a strong figure with powerful, resonant ideas and a talent to pull off concepts vibrant with shock waves that wake up the audience. He is the activist who puts the “act” in activism with none of the ego, in effect inciting both those who also want to act and those who fear action. The film’s director clearly understands this and does the best thing she can do by putting her journalist soul to work to record and stay out of the way.
Curious where Ai is now? Check out this news piece by ABC’s “Nightline.“
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is Rated R, runs 91 min. and is in English and Mandarin with English subtitles. It opens in my area, South Florida, this Friday, Aug. 17, at many indie theaters. Here they are (the Miami Beach Cinematheque held a preview screening for the purposes of this review):
Miami Beach Cinematheque – Miami Beach, FL
O Cinema – Miami, FL
Cosford Cinema – Coral Gables, FL
Shadowood 16 – Boca Raton, FL
Living Room Cinema 4 – Boca Raton, FL
Delray Beach 18 – Delray Beach, FL
If you live outside of South Florida, it could very well be playing in your area now, but there are also other playdates planned throughout the year, including screenings in Canada and the UK. A full schedule can be found on the film’s official website, here.
(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)