Review: Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

Ai Wei Wei Never Sorry

He [Ai Wei Wei] is really brilliant, he can take his own response and very naturally turn it into art. Who else in contemporary art does this?” said Artist Chan Danqing.

The idea of Alison Klayman’s documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is very clear: it is about Ai Weiwei, his life, his art and his social activism.

Ai Weiwei was one of the first generation artists who studied abroad in the United States. Having lived in the United States for thirteen years before returning to Beijing, his views about politics are more liberal than many other people in China and he acts in a more radical way. However, compared to his fellow artists, he is an exception. While some artists care less about Chinese politics, Ai Wei Wei pours his mind and time into making himself heard in China through making strong political statement through art.

In the documentary, Klayman first talked about his life as an artist and his recent work in China, then she focused on talking about his childhood and his time in America and how that influenced him as an artist. She then turned back to talk about his recent social activism in China, his recent arguments with the Chengdu police and his “disappearance” in 2011.

In the eyes of the audience of Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, Ai Weiwei, despite being in his fifties, has a vibrant inner child in him.

He is optimistic about China – believing that China will change and become more democratic in the future.

He is rebellious – publicly boycotting the Beijing Olympics.

He is brave, energetic and persistent – persistently carrying on with the investigation of the Sichuan earthquake and his lawsuit against the Chengdu Police beating accident.

“What counts,” Mr. Ai wrote, are “the tens of thousands of lives ruined because of poor construction of schools in Sichuan, because of blood sellers in Henan, because of industrial accidents in Guangdong and because of the death penalty. These are the figures that really tell the tale of our era.”

He is also very active in social media – using  his twitter to document his daily life. He once mentioned that social media and the Internet are the greatest inventions of this century. He further added that, “Some photos, at the right moment, completely change the history. Photos always tell the truth, no matter big truth or small truth; it always should be justified.” Despite having his Sina microblog shut down after he posted the names of the people who died in the Sichuan earthquake, he was determined to get through the firewall of China and stayed active on Twitter ever since.

In Chinese-speaking societies, Ai Weiwei is known to be more or less a very fearless person. His “voice” is strong, provocative and radical most of the time, which makes him impossible to ignore. He is also more than that just an artist. He is the voice of the Chinese public, the symbol of American ideology in China and the indicator of the Chinese communist party’s tolerance and patience. However in the minds of some non-Chinese, his soft-spoken English creates a deceptively gentle image of him among non-Chinese societies.

I first notice Ai Weiwei when a Hong Kong newspaper documented his activism and artwork on the Sichuan earthquake. But it was not until a few months before the Beijing Olympics that Ai Weiwei’s fame escalated in Hong Kong. He was one of the first public Chinese figures who fearlessly publicized the plan that the Chinese communist party had in mind about the Beijing Olympics – a show to the world the party’s success in rebuilding China and correcting China’s international image. In Hong Kong, he is heroic.

Surprisingly, after watching Alison Klayman’s documentary, my idea and perception of Ai Weiwei shifted a little. Maybe Ai Weiwei is, afterall, just like us. Klayman manages to show her audience the more humanizing side of Ai Weiwei through telling the details of his love for animals, such that he owns forty cats and dogs in his studio, and highlighting his interaction with his son. The ending shot of the documentary was about Ai Weiwei and his son. They were walking on Ai’s Sunflower Seeds installation in London’s Tate Museum. This is certainly not a common imagery of Ai Weiwei in the public.

He also seemed vulnerable when he was “disappeared” by the Chinese government in 2011. These little details, in fact, make Ai Weiwei more relatable. To a lot of the Chinese people, Ai Weiwei is different from the rest of the powerful people in China. Due to his provocative art, Chinese people have high hopes in him to promote change in mainland China.  His activism on social media also makes him seem very fearless. Sometimes, even Chinese people think that the government is afraid of him because of his international fame. All these expectations generated an image of him that is more powerful than who he really is. The ending quote,  “I don’t feel powerful at all. I’m still under this kind of, detention. Maybe being powerful means to be… fragile,” speaks directly to the hearts of the audience that the Chinese government is fearful but powerful.

Ai Weiwei: Never Story tells the story of a fearless Chinese man who uses art to rebel against the Chinese government and yet, he is just like everybody else. He does things that he cares about – politics and art – and he, through his art and social activism, is creating a movement in China. Nobody, even people who watched this documentary, knows what his next stage of life will be like. But he will keep trying and most importantly, keep us informed, through his twitter about his daily life, art and frustration.

Watch the trailer here:


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