By Don Simpson | March 9, 2012
Director: Alison Klayman
Ai Weiwei is one of China’s most famous international artists (for one, Ai helped design Beijing’s Bird’s Nest stadium for the 2008 Olympics), but it is debatable whether he earned this distinction as an artist or as an outspoken domestic critic. Art and politics are inseparable for Ai — his art is overtly political and his domestic criticism is shaped into political theater. His homeland is a place of repressive censorship, but Ai has continued to find clever ways express his opinions via a combination of art and social media. Chinese authorities have shut down his blog, bulldozed his art studio, smashed his head, and held him in detention; yet Ai continues to Tweet, document and create.
Director Alison Klayman picks up Ai’s story in 2009, as he prepares for the Sunflower Seeds installation at Tate Modern. But, more importantly, we find Ai immersed in his campaign to document the names of those who died during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Ai’s careful touch turns the names of the deceased into a piece of art, just as his memory of the children’s discarded backpacks in the rubble of the earthquake reappears as a giant display outside of his So Sorry exhibition in Munich. Ai also puts out a Twitter call for people to record themselves each saying one name of a Sichuan earthquake victim, which becomes a digital art project in itself. By focusing so much attention on a recent catastrophic event that the the Chinese government would prefer that the world just forget about, Ai pisses off the Chinese authorities beyond recognition.
Klayman shows that despite the common criticism that Ai is not the hands-on creator of his own work, the ideas are all his. Ai has created a Warholian factory of “assassins” who create tangible art pieces from his ephemeral concepts. Ai is also shown to be the master agitator, relentlessly attempting to sue a Chengdu police officer for assault. Ai knows that his attempts are futile, but he studiously documents the entire process to reveal the unfathomably bureaucratic justice system in China.
Like an exceptional cat that has learned to open doors, Klayman gains incredible access to document Ai’s life, allowing us to observe as he transforms from a cult celebrity of the art world into an international figurehead for the pro-democracy movement in China. It is clear that Ai, by agreeing to allow Klayman to record his every move, intends to shape Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry into a piece of political theater. The resulting Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is not a biography of the conceptual artist, it is a diatribe about one man’s battle against the censorship and repression of an authoritative regime.
In one of the many “right place, right time” scenarios in Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, Klayman concludes her film with Ai’s release from 81 days of detention. Like a neutered cat muzzled by strict bail conditions, Ai quickly retreats into his house. Klayman’s completion of Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry could not have been timed any better, as it comes at a time that Ai — who was forbidden to speak with reporters about his detention and prohibited from leaving Beijing without permission for one year after his release — has been removed [temporarily] from the international spotlight. Ai has not been completely silenced, but he has since learned to be more careful in the dissemination of his anti-authoritative message; all the while, Klayman’s documentary will help pass Ai’s message along to those of us who did not know anything about him prior to Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry.
(Also check out our Berlin 2012 interview with Alison Klayman.)