Ai Weiwei in Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (photo by Ted Alcorn; A Sundance
Outside of the art establishment, Ai Weiwei is best known for his role in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, first as designer of the “Bird’s Nest” stadium and then as an outspoken critic of the event, which he called a “propaganda show” for which the government pushed workers and ordinary people out of the city in order to stage a prettier picture to send to the world.
The artist and activist knows about sending pictures to the world. In the beginning of Alison Klayman’s well-crafted, inspiring new documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, now playing at Kendall Square, Ai says he does more than a hundred interviews a year with foreign journalists, and another hundred with Chinese. He gained a staunch following for his prolific and popular blog, and when that was shut down by the government, he turned to (uncensored) Twitter to get his messages out.
Gentle and soft-spoken, the man many call Teacher speaks eloquently in Klayman’s film, describing himself, as among other things, a chess player: “My opponents make a move, I make a move.” In the recent, best-known part of his career, the line between these moves and his art is unclear.
In her first feature documentary, and the first made about Ai, Klayman shows how in 2008, after Chinese officials refused to release the names or numbers of children killed in a brutal earthquake that destroyed government-built schools made with purportedly shoddy “tofu” construction, Ai investigated the matter himself, making a documentary about his efforts. Sending teams of volunteers out into the countryside, he compiled a list of 5,212 names and birthdates, and posted them on his blog on the anniversary of the quake. The government promptly took down the blog. Ai took to Twitter. Checkmate.
Meanwhile, Ai also tussled with the government over fellow dissident Tan Zuoren. When Ai traveled to Chengdu to testify on Tan’s behalf, police stormed his hotel room, hit him, and detained him until the hearing was over. They deny it, but he documented it. Later he was treated for a brain hemorrhage in Munich, where he was the subject of a major mid-career retrospective. He tweeted from his hospital bed. The media swarmed. He covered the façade of the museum with a mosaic made of children’s backpacks reading, in Chinese, “She lived happily on this earth for seven years” (a mom’s description of her lost daughter. )
Whether art or activism, Ai’s work is innovative, important, and inspiring, and Klayman, through generous access to Ai’s studio and extensive interviews with artists, curators, and media, does a much better job of condensing and contextualizing his career into her 90-minute film than I can do with either here. So I’ll just say: go see this film. With China rising, an election coming up, and the Olympics on, there couldn’t be a better time to learn about Ai Weiwei’s peaceful, artful brand of dissent.