Ai Weiwei is helping us change how we think about society and politics, with the help of today’s technology. Thus, he -- and we -- can imagine the end of suppression. Still, this film reminds you, we've a long way to go.
It's too certain the way society will go in New York. You pay taxes, and then you go the funeral home. I grew up in a chaotic time. I'm attracted to a changing society, and I want to see where that change is going.
-- Chen Danqing
"He's not the kind of person you are familiar with in China art circles," says Chen Danqing, a painter and art critic in Beijing. "You know, we all graduated from the Central Academy," he goes on, cigarette in hand, "Here we call it being an artist 'within the system.' But he's not. He's a just himself."
Chen's version of Ai Weiwei is one of many assembled in Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry. They differ in what people know about the activist and artist Ai, what they guess about his intentions, what they think about his art, even hinting at what stakes they might have in that art or the challenges it poses. These challenges are both broad and particular in Ai's work, as he has repeatedly targeted official Chinese political and legal structures, using Twitter and Facebook and his extended middle finger.
Such challenges have made Ai a target himself, inspiring surveillance by the government and also hope that China might change. Ai gained international fame when he collaborated with Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron in designing the Birds Nest Stadium for the 2008 Olympics. That fame took something of a turn -- though it was still most potent outside of China -- when Ai went on to take a photo of the stadium from a distance, his middle finger extended in the foreground. It's not that he's against the Olympics, he explains here, but "I am not for a kind of Olympics that forces immigrants out of the city, to tell the ordinary citizens they should not participate but just make a fake smile for the foreigners, and become purely Party's propaganda. Which is very scary."
Ai's evolving resistance to state repression shapes other projects as well, including his campaign to tally accurately the victims of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, especially the children who died when poorly constructed schoolhouses collapsed, and his video for the People’s Republic of China’s 60th birthday, featuring a series of people with different dialects saying into the camera, "Fuck you, motherland." Ai explains, "It's about communicating, it's about how we use the language, which can be part of our history or part of other histories, and how we transform it into today's language." The piece is remarkable, maybe especially if you consider that it was part of a show in Munich in October 2009, just a month after Ai was beaten by police in Chengdu.
That beating takes up much of the documentary's emotional energy, if part because Ai decides to pursue a legal case against Chengdu officials in 2010. The steps in this case come up in between other events, and images related to it -- Ai getting a catscan, hospital forms, stitches in Ai's head -- appear variously on screen, some as they were attached to Ai's tweets (say, "If there is no free speech, every life is lived in vain," or again, "For each person to cherish their rights is the essence of a civil society"). When Ai and the film crew go into the Chengdu police interview room, he notes the change in procedure from the year before: "By law, they have to take two person to write down this, so they're really following the rules now."
Such effrontery, for cameras, no less, is no small risk. Still, Ai finds increasingly brilliant ways to use social media, tweeting that he will be dining at a certain Chengdu restaurant at a certain time, so that crowds of people show up. First, they might be anyone, passersby, but then as Ai sits down, they approach, take pictures, thank him and ask to sit with tem. This even as they know they also risk real trouble by supporting him in public.
The film is especially smart about this notion of the public. Again and again it shows cameras, surveillance cameras swiveling to observe Ai as he leaves his studio, photographers' cameras flashing as he appears in London or Munich or New York. In Chengdu, a policeman stands across the street from the restaurant and tapes him, and then Ai's videographer, Zhao Zhao steps into frame, his camera pointed at the officer. Zhao's voiceover frames the showdown: "The police doesn’t know the power of the image," he says, "They have their camera, we have our camera, but their camera is never going to be exposed to the public. We are going to expose it, so it's not a fair game." The seeming opposition of cameras is further complicated by Klayman's camera, not to mention the cellphones and cameras you've already seen in citizens' hands. Not to mention -- the internet.
This is Ai's idea, to make these moments visible, make process transparent, and allow artists -- of whatever kind or ability -- to express themselves. It's a shift in thinking, in politics, that's made increasingly possible with today's technology. Ai gets that exactly right, and in it can imagine the end of suppression. Still, the film reminds you, that day is not here yet.
It's worth noting that even as the film offers more access to Ai than you've probably ever had, it is also about limits, specifically, the limits of what exposure can do. It shows a bit about his work methods ("I have very little involvement in the production of my works," he says, "I mainly make the decisions. I prefer that other people implement them"), offers a comment or two about his marriage ("For us," says his wife Lu Qing, "Life and work mixed together"), and also his decision to have a child with another woman ("It’s a treasure, nothing can replace that").
But his life remains his own, as do his perils. When the film reminds you, near its end, that in April 2011 Ai was arrested by authorities at the Beijing airport, then detained for 81 days, until he allegedly confessed to a charge of tax evasion, you're reminded as well of consequences that remain out of sight, unexposed. In this, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is a film about its own limits, too. And that's another kind of revelation.