Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

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All the World’s a Stage
by Genevieve Yue

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
Dir. Alison Klayman, U.S., IFC Films/Sundance Selects

After a chance assignment filming the inimitable Chinese artist Ai Weiwei for a Beijing gallery, novice documentarian Alison Klayman found herself chronicling what arguably became the two most tumultuous years of Ai’s life. During this time he had to deal with gargantuan solo exhibitions in European museums, a police beating which led to emergency brain surgery, the forced demolition of his newly built studio in Shanghai, and the 81 days he was held in secret detention as protestors clamored for his release around the world. Seen in loose chronology in Klayman’s resulting Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, these events are charged with a drama and suspense not often found in the rarified world of contemporary art. Furthermore, Ai gives Klayman seemingly unlimited access, allowing her to accompany him as he files a lawsuit against the officers that battered him, attends family gatherings, travels to openings, and conducts interviews with foreign journalists. A far more prolific filmmaker than Klayman, Ai also lends her clips from his documentaries, many of which are liberally inserted into hers.

While Klayman may rightly claim a familiarity with the portly provocateur who was named, in 2011, number one in ArtReview’s Power 100 and a runner-up to Time’s “Person of the Year,” there’s little evidence that she grasps the contours of his world, which in this film is generally limited to his friends, assistants, museum professionals, and adoring fans. Ai certainly cuts a compelling figure, but dwelling as Never Sorry does on his jovial outspokenness or the controversial stunts staged to provoke the Chinese authorities, misses the reason he rose to international prominence in the first place. More than a renegade artist sticking it (“it” referring quite literally to his middle finger, one of his favorite photographic subjects) to the Communist state, Ai forces the consideration of art’s role in culture, its thorny entanglements with commerce and international politics, and the relation, or even responsibility, it bears to social justice. Is Ai a Chinese artist or an international one? Are his art and activism separate entities, and do these enterprises amplify or detract from each other? Who is his audience: the authorities, the Chinese people, or the denizens of social media websites? Though I take issue with the assumption that documentaries should be automatically imbued with didactic or “consciousness-raising” purpose (they are, like any form of artistic production, constructed discourses that can be deployed any number of ways), I’m concerned that Klayman’s view is myopic to the point of distorting, or disregarding outright, the highly complex intersections of east-west politics, culture, and the international art market.

As one might expect, Ai’s projects are enormous and often risky undertakings. The artist is renowned to many for his role in the design of the Bird’s Nest stadium, the centerpiece of the Beijing Olympics, and would be later remembered for his denunciation of the games for their propagandistic role in presenting a friendly, sanitized image of the nation to the international community. During his investigation of the shoddy construction of schools that collapsed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, he produced a list, published on his blog, of over five thousand names of schoolchildren who perished in the tragedy; as a result he received intensified domestic scrutiny alongside increasing international visibility as a prominent Chinese dissident. Subsequent large-scale installations, captured by Klayman’s camera in solemn tilts and pans, are genuinely awe-inspiring. The nine thousand backpacks mounted on the façade of the Haus der Kunst in Munich spell out the phrase “She lived happily on this earth for seven years,” an understated elegy for a child victim of the earthquake; London’s Tate Modern, meanwhile, features a floor covered in one hundred million sunflower seeds hand-painted by Chinese artisans, over which Ai trods with his toddler son. Ai’s most daring artistic intervention, however, may be his Twitter account, an online presence that, even during his imprisonment, is perpetuated by his supporters and #freeaiweiwei hashtags worldwide. This is no gimmick: Twitter, which in Ai’s hands is also a means of disseminating his documentaries and other art projects, poses a considerable circumvention of Chinese censors, and Ai’s deft deployment of social media provocatively blurs the lines separating art and activism.

It’s easy to understand why the film concerns itself primarily with Ai’s outsized personality. Ai seems exceedingly good at telling the kinds of stories he wants people to know, and at times it’s difficult to tell whether he or Klayman is directing the documentary. Affable and even jolly, though by turns brash and hot-tempered, he spins slogans in 140 characters or less (“Never retreat, retweet!” dictates one), broadcasts his daily activities online, waxes aphoristic about cats, and conducts no less than a hundred interviews a year. He only began using Twitter in 2009, two days after his blog was shut down, but since then he’s become particularly adept at marshalling social media as an artistic medium, the latest and most effective platform in a career that spans filmmaking, architecture, graphic design, sculpture, and photography. Klayman films all of these activities like a dutiful assistant, embellishing them with the requisite newsreel footage for historical illustration, contact-sheet stills of a trim Ai slumming it on the Lower East Side, and a chatty array of talking heads.

The film’s most dramatic moments are the results of Ai’s own orchestration. At one point he describes himself as a chess player, and he’s managed to transform the game he plays with the Chinese authorities into exceptionally riveting political theater: posting post-op photos of his bandaged head, organizing a protest in the guise of an outdoor meal, or taunting the state with a documentary entitled “Fuck You, Motherland.” It is also, as Ai’s analogy suggests, a partnered dance, though Klayman’s hagiographic documentary tends to focus only on the sprightly steps its subject takes. In one particularly tense scene, Ai marches up to the Chengdu cop who, a year prior, burst into his hotel room and pummeled his head. With his own videographer shooting nearby, Ai pulls off the man’s sunglasses and snaps a photo. A struggle ensues; backup police officers flood the scene, tugging on the tightly clutched cameras of Ai’s entourage. Later, he turns around from the passenger side of his car to address his assistants in the backseat. “You should be Tweeting,” he instructs them. “Be clear about what happened today.”

The appearance of Ai’s small son an hour into the 90-minute documentary is one of the film’s most jarring revelations. Klayman refuses to push deeper into the circumstances of the boy’s birth, relying instead on the journalist Evan Osnos to ask tentative interview questions. When Osnos asks who the mother of the child is, Ai responds without hesitation, “It’s the child’s mother.” Earlier, when asked about his family, he cutely avoids talking about his mother, turning his refusal into a potential art project; evidently it’s one of his preferred tactics (he offers to sign a contract allowing any mother on the street to speak on behalf of him). His actual mother appears soon after, tearful and proud, and any doubt stirred by his earlier evasion is quickly diffused. Klayman seems content to leave aside questions of what Ai’s wife of sixteen years thinks about this child, or the way the artist relates to the rest of his family, in favor of picturesque compositions of the elder Ai gently guiding the hand of the waddling junior.

I suspect that for someone as methodical as Ai (he is, after all, a masterful chess player), those areas of reluctance and obfuscation, namely where it concerns his family, are likely the most telling. Though his brother speaks more about their father, the renowned poet Ai Qing, it’s clear that the dozen years the family spent banished to a work camp in remote western China, and the humiliation their father endured, deeply affected Ai. While Klayman presents these traumatic experiences as the impetus for Ai’s rebellion, including the expat decade he spent in New York, she draws precious few connections across these patrilineal strands. Visually, however, the film offers some clues: the story of Ai Qing being doused in calligraphy ink by the Red Guards bears resemblance to the images of Ai’s Han Dynasty vases dripping with desecrating paint, and the splashy, “big character” posters of the Cultural Revolution could easily be linked to the text of the Haus der Kunst façade. Iconoclast though he may seem, Ai bears many similarities to other artists whose lives were indelibly affected by the Cultural Revolution, their stances not simply oppositional or critical, but often parodic, playful, sometimes nostalgic, and often inseparable from their own family histories. Ai, after all, did not return to China to join fellow dissidents in the wake of the 1989 democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, but came several years later, in order to tend to his ailing father. Upon hearing the news of the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to the imprisoned dissident Liu Xiaobo, he reflects on his own practice, “It takes time… and I did it because my father’s generation didn’t do a good job.” These and other questions that might elucidate Ai’s role within the recent history and evolving world of contemporary Chinese art may be incidentally raised in the documentary’s footage, but for lack of interest or research, they are left mostly unexplored.

Never Sorry might be most interesting for what it reveals about the Western desire for Chinese dissident art. It produces a lovable, foul-mouthed outlaw hero variously philosophical (in the vein of Henry David Thoreau), inscrutable (shades of Bob Dylan), or brimming with fuck-the-police vitriol (think N.W.A.); in short, he’s as American as any superhero to barrel through a summer movie, or as the film shows without a trace of self-awareness, to receive commendation from Hillary Clinton. The authoritarian state, meanwhile, remains the same indomitable enemy. Flip it over, and this good China/bad China split becomes a right-wing screed against the behemoth, job-sucking land to the east; such tales are frequently used as stump speech staples that prey on the economic anxieties of the American middle class. Thankfully, Never Sorry doesn’t apparently share these reductive and damaging views. Its tentative, paint-by-numbers approach to documentary, however, falls short of producing a portrait deserving of its vivid, complex subject.