Art As Protest and Protest As Art
Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is probably as well known for his protests against political repression in contemporary China as he is for his vastly variable works of art.
In Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, first time filmmaker Alison Klayman chronicles the daily life of the artist as he uses his work and his notoriety to draw attention to his grievances against the current Chinese government.
Profile of the Artist
The film also profiles the artist, and provides background on artistic achievements from the time when he left China during the 1970s to study and work in New York City and became part of the city's downtown art scene, to the establishment of his at home studio in China, his contribution to the architectural design of the stadium used for the Chinese Olympics, and his recent and very well-attended art installation at London's Tate Gallery. For the Tate exhibition, Weiwei had 100-million hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds -- slightly larger than natural sunflower seeds, but otherwise exact representations -- made in a small town in China and flown to the UK, where they were spread evenly -- sort of like pebbles in a Japanese garden -- on the gallery floor.
Included in the film's coverage of Ai Weiwei's art is the famous series of poster-size photos in which the artist's arm is extended in front of the camera, with his hand pointing in the direction of a well known landmark -- Tiananemen Square, for one example, and the White House, for another -- with his middle finger sticking up in a gesture of open defiance. Ai Weiwei did gain fame for his work on the Chinese Olympic Stadium, but he would up protesting the Olympics because their presence in Beijing caused displacement of numerous citizens from their homes, and other hardships on the city's impoverished masses.
Social Media, Social Responsibility
Ai Weiwei has also become adept at using social networking -- Twitter, in particular -- to engage Chinese citizens and people around the world in protest against the Chinese government's suppression of freedom of speech and expression -- particularly as it pertains to the arts -- and imprisonment of dissidents who've spoken out against the regime. In the film, Ai Weiwei says repeatedly that there will be no progress, no change, unless people speak up. He is determined to spur their protests.
Ai Weiwei is a thoroughly engaging character. For all his fame and what seem to be fairly affluent circumstances, he's down to earth, unpresumptuous and patient in his dealings with other people, very appreciative of his family, a doting father, and absolutely steadfast in his opposition to the government's efforts to shut him down. He is also extremely media savvy and had a good sense of humor, which he frequently uses in making his points.
One of the film's sequences that best reveals Ai Weiwei's style and sense of humor has to do with the Chinese government's building of a special studio for him in Beijing, as part of the opprobrium he received following construction of the Olympic Stadium. When he began to protest the social effects of the Olympics, the order came for the studio to be torn down. Ai Weiwei filmed the demolition, and posted photos on the Internet. He also scheduled a huge feast to celebrate (he says in the film that there are many ways to protest) the event, inviting hundreds of fans to join him to eat river crabs. In Chinese, the words for river crabs are very similar to those of a popular Chinese government propaganda slogan. Unfortunately, Ai Weiwei was arrested and couldn't attend the feast, but hundreds of his supporters did, and the event made news headlines -- which was Ai Weiwei's objective when he scheduled the feast.
Defying Personal Threats
Ai Weiwei was 'disappeared' for 61 days, held ostensibly on charges related to the financing of his business. The government has demanded that he pay some $24-million in taxes and fines, and there has been an outpouring of support -- in the form of monetary donations -- from his supporters.
The film shows Ai Weiwei after his release, returning to his home, looking exhausted, but declaring that he is fine. Other than that, he was able to offer no comments to news media, even those whose previous interviews are shown in the film, because the conditions of his 'probation' include that he not give interviews to anyone. He was also prohibited from writing on the Internet and from leaving Beijing.
The film ends, however, with word that Ai Weiwei began to give interviews and was again writing on the Internet just months after his release. He is still in China, and he still beleaguered with censorship and threats. The film has developed several outreach programs to keep Ai Weiwei's story in front of the public, and to support his art and activism.
Additionally, the film is a fascinating study about how one person can foment significant changes in society, and how art can be a very big part of the movement for change.
If you're not familiar with Ai Weiwei's art and activism, you should be. And, this documentary is your best chance to get to know him, or get to know more about him.
If You Like This Documentary, You May Also Like:
- Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present
- Jean-Michel Basquiat: Radiant Child
- Last Train Home
- Up The Yangtze
- Young And Restless In China
- Which Way Home
- Trouble The Water
- Title: Ai Weiwei Never Sorry
- Director: Alison Klayman
- Release Date: US Theatrical, July 27, 2012
- Running Time: 91 mins.
- Parents Advisory: Advisory for content
- Location: China, New York, London
- Language: English and Mandarin, with English subtitles
- Production Company: Expressions United Media
- Distribution: Sundance Selects
- Official Website