Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Ai Weiwei's Never Sorry

The poster for Alison Klayman's documentary on Ai Weiwei
I just came back from watching the documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry that won the Special Jury Prize 2012 at the Sundance Film Festival.

In the 91-minute film, first-time director Alison Klayman follows the prolific artist, activist, father and husband for two years from about 2008 when an exhibition of photographs he took during his time in New York were shown to when he was released after being detained for 81 days in 2011.

Incidentally I did see that photo exhibition and was held at Three Shadows Photography Art Centre in Chaochangdi, just past the Fifth Ring Road and was struck by how he captured protests at the time and his photographs of everything -- even the mundane -- sowed the seeds for his art in the future, that anything can be documented, anything can be art.

Ai likes to document everything, even the filmmaker
He came to prominence internationally just before the Beijing Olympics in 2008 when he denounced the Games as being fake. Many were surprised that such a well-known artist was speaking out at such a sensitive time, but he was speaking the truth -- how hutongs were being demolished and migrants moved out of the capital to present a perfect picture of the city.

Ai's activism really emerged after the May 2008 Sichuan earthquake. In the documentary he said he blogs everyday, more than one article per day but when the quake happened, he could not write for a week.

And when the government refused to release the exact number of students who died in what people call shoddily-built or "tofu" schools, Ai sprang into action, calling for volunteers on the ground to collect the names of the victims, one by one.

In the end they managed to get over 5,000 names and he placed their name, gender, age and their birth date on large pieces of paper and pasted together. It's a terrible testament to what happened and outrageous that the government has done nothing to acknowledge these deaths.

One of Ai's pieces features 9,000 colourful backpacks that were placed outside an art museum in Munich which spell out the phase "she was happy for seven years". It comes from a mother who wanted her child to be remembered for though having a short life, she was happy for all seven years.

In an elevator with the police after his beating in Sichuan
We also sort of see the documentation of his beating in Sichuan when he tried to testify in earthquake activist Tan Zuoren's trial with witnesses and sound recordings, but also see him in a Munich hospital complaining of a severe headache and it was from the beatings he sustained.

His fascination with the internet is also shown in the film, blogging and tweeting -- the latter constantly. He seems obsessed with documenting everything, particularly his beating and the aftermath. As one of his artist friends says, the government is a bunch of hooligans so Ai acts like a hooligan too. He seems to know how to deal with them -- which is basically shove things back in their face.

While they film him, he films them filming him -- or rather his assistants do. While this looks amusing, Ai points out his documenting this is more effective because it's posted online whereas the police's record is for internal use only. Ai is keen to show how brutal, pathetic, bureaucratic and terrorizing the government is to him, so imagine how much more horrible they are in how they treat ordinary people.

Painting some of the millions of ceramic sunflower seeds
And just as he prepares for his Tate Modern exhibition featuring 100 million hand painted ceramic sunflower seeds, the 2010 Nobel Peace prize is awarded to Liu Xiaobo and Ai looks overwhelmed but elated, talking non stop to the press about it. Ai does not understand why someone who posted six articles online should be jailed for 11 years; his observation makes viewers stop and realize what kind of totalitarian regime he is dealing with.

There's also the softer side of Ai, seeing him with his son, Ai Lao. He fathered the child with another woman who insisted on keeping the baby when she told him she was pregnant. While we don't see his wife Luo Qing's reaction, he takes full responsibility of the child's well being though he visits the child daily. It's a strange arrangement, that even Ai is at a loss of words to explain to a British journalist.

Then when he was going to fly to Hong Kong he was suddenly detained at the airport. Director Klayman was madly trying to finish editing the film at the time because he was going to go to New York for the opening of his Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads (which I also saw two years ago). He disappeared and there were worldwide protests.

He likes to blog, but tweet even more so everyday
When he was finally released late at night, he returned back, but looked shaken and was too scared to say anything about his detention, not wanting to tempt his fate again.

But months later he was back online and doing media interviews, just not leaving Beijing. The documentary kind of ends there, and makes you wonder what his experience was like being offline and isolated for 81 days. However, his recent exhibition at the Venice Biennale kind of explains it as he made miniature dioramas of what he went through which is fascinating, yet not surprising he would do something like that.

Ai admits he doesn't like producing his own work and has an army of staff to do it. One of them interviewed likens it to being an assassin. He says that Ai pays him money to execute his work for him.

When asked about his cat-and-mouse game with the government, Ai says he's like chess player, looking to see what his move his opponent is going to make. Before he was was beaten up, he claims he is not fearless but fearful because he knew of the potential dangers.

First time director Alison Klayman
While he claims his family hasn't shaped his art, his father has a looming presence, having been severely persecuted in the 1950s and 60s. He said after his family was released from doing hard labour, his father tried to commit suicide many times. Watching his father being publicly denounced and punished surely had some effect on Ai.

He casually makes the statement, "Life is more interesting when you make a bit of effort". And Klayman said after the screening that Ai is non-stop, constantly having projects on the go.

He has definitely spurred me to try to do more and be more productive. Definitely a force to be reckoned with. We look forward to whatever he does next.


  1. Thank you for bringing Ai Weiwei to your blog. He really is a force -- probably formed in part by his time in NY. His B&W photos (thanks for the link) including cops busting demonstrators -- the good ol' bad ol' days -- and naked self-portraits. The young, in-formation badass Ai Weiwei soaking up American freedom with his buddies.

    1. HI Amy FJ Stone -- Thanks for your comment! I saw Ai in a restaurant near where I used to live in the Fourth Ring Road. As I walked by I stared at him thinking, is that Ai Weiwei? He stared back at me as if mirroring me. I regret not going up to him and saying Thank you.

      He's so clever in his reactions to things and his art reflects his thoughts and the opinions he wants to express. I particularly admire his activism, showing he's not just an artist who wants/gets attention.

      I hope he'll be around for a while because China needs him more now than ever before to stand up to the government and show the world. He knows it too which is probably why he's so busy with so many projects, so little time.