Keep you in check
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
“Sometimes art is confused with decoration,” says Colin Robertson, curator of education at the Nevada Museum of Art. “Several times [in history] art became one of the important lynchpins for catalyzing cultural shift, cultural change and cultural learning in a lot of places.”
Robertson programs the museum’s film series with that in mind. The next film he’ll screen is Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, a documentary that follows Chinese artist Ai Weiwei from his Beijing studio to international museum exhibits to the police station where he confronts the authorities who’ve assaulted him in a hotel room.
There’s not much danger of confusing Ai’s work with decoration, even when it looks gorgeous, which it often does. He straightforwardly opposes government authority, especially China’s. Ai uses “multimedia,” which means just about any form of communication available, from ancient Chinese artifacts recontextualized in a museum—or even smashed on the sidewalk!—to potlucks and Twitter. He gives the finger to symbols of authority worldwide—literally; he took snapshots of his own middle finger raised to Tiananmen Square, the Eiffel Tower and the White House. He was the artistic consultant on the Beijing National Stadium, the gracefully swooping monolith of a “Bird’s Nest” built for the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, which he later protested for displacing immigrants. And he tweets 140-character gems in defense free speech for hours each day.
When asked to describe what kind of artist he is, Ai says, “I consider myself more of a chess player. My opponent makes a move. I make a move.”
Most of Ai’s strategic plays are against one formidable opponent: China’s government. He makes each one, complex and irrevocable, in reaction to authorities’ control over the flow of information. When the government and the press weren’t talking much about the death toll from the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake, Ai started speaking up. Officials apparently weren’t investigating, so Ai and his volunteers went around asking schools and families for names of the dead. He memorialized them in a museum exhibit in Germany.
Chess, indeed. At one point in the film, the police shut down Ai’s blog and put his studio under surveillance. He started using Twitter frequently, which is outside the police department’s jurisdiction. A few scenes later, the camera of Alison Klayman, the film’s sharply observant director, producer and cinematographer, quietly finds two lifelike, hand-carved marble surveillance cameras on Ai’s property.
Klayman follows Ai through the better part of a year, seeing him through the lenses of journalists, curators, followers who call him “Teacher Ai,” studio assistants who look immensely happy working for him, and family members. Police hassle him, his family life gets complicated, and his mother worries for his life. All along, he remains stoically calm and persistent. He’s an internationally revered art superstar who declines opportunities to sell when the market is high. Instead, he conducts actions, thoroughly documented by Klayman and crew, such as publicly demonstrating the futility of China’s legal appeals process by trying to actually use it.
The film was released in July 2012 and has racked up accolades on the festival circuit but hasn’t seen a wide release—although it is available from Netflix. It’s screened in Europe, Asia and Australia, and it’s now slowly being released in the U.S., mostly at museum and university theaters, including the Crocker Museum in Sacramento in February and a couple of venues in San Francisco and Los Angeles in April.