‘Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry’: Fight the power

July 26, 2012

Modern art long ago stopped being about recreating an image of reality and became about ideas. The key question always seems to be: Is art the thing itself? Or the idea of the thing?

But what if you live in a society where the very ideas you harbor are punishable by imprisonment – or worse? How much of being an artist becomes about simply having the courage to express your ideas in verbal or physical form?

That’s the notion at the heart of “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” a compelling documentary about the Chinese contemporary artist who seems to spend his life on a blade’s edge, dancing on a knife that’s in the hands of the government of the People’s Republic of China. One of the designers of the “Bird’s Nest,” the stadium that was the centerpiece of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Ai is a seemingly fearless individual whose most prominent art work often involves giving the finger to his own government, sometimes literally.

As Alison Klayman’s film shows, he comes by his rebelliousness naturally. His father was a dissident poet under Mao Zedong, sent to reeducation farms to learn the proper attitude. Ai Weiwei lives in a slightly more enlightened time, but the memory of his father’s treatment still informs his work and his opinion about his country.

Yet his art isn’t about overthrowing the established order as much as showing its hypocrisy and cement-headed attitudes toward new ideas, such as democratic free thought and expression. The film chronicles a couple of his post-Olympic artworks, such as a show in Germany that included a massive, building-size quilt made of red, yellow and blue nylon backpacks.

The backpacks represent the thousands of school children who died in a 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province. They were killed when the government-built school buildings in which they were housed collapsed because of shoddy construction. The government, however, refused to acknowledge the loss of life because of the loss of face it would entail.

The backpacks were a follow-up to one of Ai Weiwei’s other projects – assembling a list of names of all the dead children, something the government refused to do. The government feared embarrassment for sanctioning substandard construction and refused to reveal how many children had died in the earthquake. So Ai Weiwei and a crew of volunteers gradually assembled the most comprehensive list around and posted it on the Internet – until the government took it down.

And so it goes. Klayman shows the constant surveillance that is part of his life, in a culture where video cameras are a weapon, to be used against the populace. But Ai turns the cameras back on the police and you can feel their discomfort.

At one point, he is even attacked by a couple of the police who come to his hotel room; struck on the head and suffering headaches later, he is operated on in Germany before his show opens there, to relieve a subdural hematoma that might have killed him.

Yet he remains philosophical and playful, a truth-seeker in a country that abhors the truth in favor of face-saving. As a friend notes, there is “a bit of the hooligan” to Ai, but, as he adds, it’s the appropriate response to a communist government run by hooligans.

Ai’s work – including an installment involving a hundred million sunflower seeds at the Tate Modern in London, meant to represent the diversity of Chinese people and their thinking – is an ingenious response to repression and suppression. By the end of “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” you’ll find yourself admiring Ai’s ingenious and profound work.

You’ll also fear for his life. He repeatedly puts himself on the front line, whether pursuing a lawsuit against the police who assaulted him or simply maintaining a constant flow of tweets on Twitter, to spread ideas and announce his actions. At the end, the film chronicles his disappearance in the spring of 2011 – and his subsequent emergence from government imprisonment two months later, on bail for “crimes against the state” with a hefty fine for tax evasion. We see his not-quite-2-year-old son (not by his wife) and feel the sudden sense of mortality and new stakes that inform his life and work.

A film like this spreads the word in a way that a single person seldom can. Ai Weiwei has managed to get the word out – and the fact of his own survival speaks volumes about his own tenacity and cleverness. See “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” and join his struggle.

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