We want our artists to be fearless and unafraid of retribution for speaking their minds. That's easy to say in this country, where the usual consequence for controversy is either having your funding pulled or wild commercial success. Hell, sometimes the two go hand-inhand. Elsewhere, though, artists pay high prices, and that's what lies at the heart of Alison Klayman's new documentary, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, which opens Friday, Aug. 10, at La Jolla Village Cinemas.
This is a profile of the same Ai Weiwei whose installation at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego ended just last month, the same Ai Weiwei who was taken into custody by Chinese authorities for almost three months last year, where he remained, completely incommunicado, until he was released with what was clearly a severe enough warning to keep him from speaking quite as loudly as he had before.
Ai's work, however, continues to have enormous resonance in both his homeland and abroad—ArtReview named him the world's most powerful artist the year he was arrested. Much of that popularity has to do with his strong belief in freedom, his need for transparency, his fearlessness in challenging a police state, his absolute insistence on free speech and his willingness to raise his middle finger to anyone who might object.
Klayman spent more than two years shooting footage of Ai, and what she has culled together is a fascinating portrait of the man, his inner circle and his place in that society. Certainly, Ai is an artist, but his work as an artist and his work as a political activist are entirely intertwined— it's his success at the former that allows him to express himself as the latter.
Ai first came to prominence as the man who designed the Bird's Nest for the Beijing Olympics in 2008. He then boycotted the games to protest his government's stance on human rights. He's regularly seen in the movie standing up to low-level authority figures, and he bears the scars of doing so, literally. But he walks the talk, frequently using social media as a force for openness and constantly calling the Chinese government on its bullshit, backing up his assertions with images and video.
On top of all that, he really is an amazing artist. Plenty of San Diegans saw his exhibit here, and in the film, we see work that he's putting on in Munich and London. His work is insightful and fairly epic, much like his activism. In fact, the way he goes about his activism is somewhat artistic, putting him into a class of dissident that's inspiring and also unfamiliar to most Chinese, because everything he does is out in the open.
When the film opens, he's working with volunteers to create a list of more than 5,000 schoolchildren who died in poorly constructed schools during the 2008 earthquake that took more than 70,000 lives. To divert the spotlight from its own ineptitude, the government never released lists of the deceased, so the artist set about finding out who they were. What's said over and over is that he's doing the work the government should be doing. Ai fights for rights that we take for granted, and it's fascinating to see the courage he possesses and how the portly, bearded man inspires those around him to stand up for what they believe in.
The film ends with the government's destruction of his studio and Ai's detainment and release, which sparked outrage in China and everywhere else (if you listen closely, you'll hear the radio reports from at least two KPBS reporters included in the film). We're still in a period when the artist's voice isn't nearly as loud as it once was, but it's easy to understand why, if you were in his shoes, it might make more sense to whisper rather than shout.
One thing is clear, however: Even though the last chapter has ended, there is still plenty more of the story of Ai Weiwei to be told.
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