Saturday, August 11, 2012

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry [2012]

MPAA (R)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (directed by Alison Klayman) is a documentary about Ai Weiwei [IMDb], China's most famous and probably most controversial artist today.

Why would he be both famous and controversial?  Well he was one of designers of Beijing's Olympic Stadium, known today to the world as "The Birds Nest."  However, by the time the 2008 Olympics came to Beijing, he was one of a very few Chinese who _publicly_ opposed China's holding of the Olympics.  Why?  Because he was appalled by Beijing's authorities' removal of not just potential dissidents but of simply poor/homeless people from Beijing in preparation for the Games to create an unnecessarily sanitized (and more to the point, false) impression of Beijing for incoming tourists.   

But he really became controversial and famous in China was when he become an uncompromising champion of the victims of China's 2008 Sichuan earthquake that killed some 70,000 people and as many as 7,000 children.  When China's authorities refused to make public the number of children who had been killed as a result of shoddily constructed schools (schools that all across China began to be derisively called as having been built to "Tofu" construction standards) he led a theretofore unheard-of (in China) private initiative involving volunteers who canvased the entire quake-damaged region interviewing grief-stricken parents.  After compiling the names and birthdates of over 5000 children who were killed in the quake, he created a makeshift memorial for them with their names listed on a wall in his studio (the documentary shows this) recalling, of course, the U.S. Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C.

He also became a prominent signitary China's intellectual and artistic community's Charter 08 recalling a similar charter, called Charter 77, which had been written and signed during the Communist era by Czechoslovakian artists, intellectuals and dissidents, calling for the freedom of expression.  (The most prominent signitary of the Czechoslovakian Charter 77 was the then dissident playwright Vaclav Havel who became Czechoslovakia's president after Communism's fall). 

Yet, Ai Weiwei's history is definitely complex.  Born in 1958, the son of a controversial Chinese poet, Ai Qing, he spent his childhood in internal exile in China's far western province of Xinjiang after his father fell out of favor with the Maoist regime and was deported and sentenced to hard labor there.  In 1978, after Mao's death and during the first years of Deng Xiaoping's reign in China, he applied for and was accepted in the Beijing Film Academy where he quickly became interested in avant guard art.  For reasons to me inexplicable, Ai Weiwei, received permission in 1981 to go to New York, where he continued to study and specialize in conceptual art and remained there until 1993 (a few years following the Tienanmen Massacre) when he returned back to China ostensibly to be with his by then rehabilitated but now dying father.  He established his studio in China and has become a well known and provocative figure both in China and abroad in the contemporary art world.

What has made Ai Weiwei fascinating (and gotten him in all sorts of trouble in China) is that even though he returned to China, he returned with the attitude of being an uncompromisingly free man even though he is living in China.  Hence his art has repeatedly been intentionally provocative.  His pieces have included:

(1) Perfect stone (marble) replicas of modern surveillance cams [1] [2] [3].

(2) His painting over (and at times intentionally shattering) ancient Chinese artifacts like vases with contemporary (Coca-Cola) logos [1][2][3]. (Why?  To draw attention to both the Mao regime's wholesale destruction of China's history during his reign and the bulldozing of potential archeological sites by today's authorities in China when they simply want to build something on inconveniently historically important land...)

(3) [Added Aug 12] A series of photographs taken presumably by Ai Weiwei "flipping off" various important landmarks around the world, notably the Forbidden City/Tienanmen Square in Beijing, the White House in Washington D.C., the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Hong Kong's skyline, etc.  (Why?  Presumably because "why not?"  If one is truly free, one should be able to do that ... Yes, this can be painful, but I do get it).

(4) At an exhibition in Munich following the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, he composed a banner along side the wall of the museum made out of 7,000 children's backpacks declaring in Chinese "She had a happy life until she was seven."

(5) At another exhibition in London, he covered the floor of the exposition hall with 100 million hand painted porcelain (hence fake) "Made in China" sunflower seeds and encouraged visitors then to walk on them, step on them, play with them, etc. [1] [2] [3] [4].

(6) After, more or less inevitably being arrested and held incognito by Chinese authorities for 81 days before being released and being subsequently put under surveillance by no less than 15 security cams (he apparently jokes that his corner of Beijing is the most surveyed corner in the whole city) he installed four web cams inside his own apartment and hooked them up to the internet.  He also has a twitter feed (in Chinese) and (translated by volunteers in English).

So Ai Weiwei is certainly a provocateur repeatedly forcing China's authorities to choose between embarrassment and freedom.  But perhaps what I appreciated the most about Ai Weiwei in this documentary was his honesty about his failings in his personal life.  He's been married to another artist (named Lu Qiing) but has a young boy now by another woman.  Asked in the documentary how his wife feels about this, he answered with appropriate embarrassment and sincerity "Well, she's not happy with it," and continued "It's not the best of situations."  Artists have long had crazy and morally questionable lives.  And even in the now free Czech Republic (referred to above) the now free artistic community has, in fact, recognized this deficiency in its own community: One of the main points of the 2009 Czech film "Pouta" ("Walking too Fast") about the Communist era was an admission that many of the artistic dissidents of that time were, well, "pigs," leading morally questionable lives that caused great difficulty to their loved ones.  So I have to say that Ai Weiwei's admission that he has hurt his wife with his personal conduct, was, in fact, refreshing and IMHO one of the most salutary parts of the film.

So what then to say ultimately about the film?  I very happy that this documentary was made.  There are still four months left in the year, but I would imagine that the documentary will be on most critics' lists of the best/most important documentaries made this year.   And I do think that most readers here and most people everywhere will benefit with knowledge of who this man is and what his art has been about.

I wish you the best Ai Weiwei and to the film maker, Alison Klayman, the best as well!  Good job folks, good job!


While "in theaters in major markets," many "Independent" / Foreign Films and Documentaries are  available for home viewing in the U.S. through the IFC Video On Demand service (type in your zipcode and cable provider to see if this service as available to you) or for download via services like Sundance Now and/or Itunes / Amazon Instant Video.  Eventually, these films become available for rent in the U.S. via NetFlix or   More obscure titles can also be found via Facets Multimedia's DVD Rental Service.

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