Daily routine of a legend
Klayman, who lived in China from 2006 to 2010, films Ai as he eats, tweets, visits family, and directs his art installations. Ai’s home outside Beijing has become a fortress, surrounded by government cameras and informants who track his every move.
Artists, gallery owners and journalists share insights about the celebrated dissident. Klayman skillfully weaves this invigorating story with interviews and footage from Ai Weiwei’s own documentary films.
Praise for outspoken critic
“Typical Chinese critics are mild,” Beijing artist Chen Danqing comments. “They never directly speak out against, the Communist Party or the government. . . . But Ai Weiwei is different. He will scold them. He uses the most aggressive words to point out society’s dark side.”
Evan Osnos of The New Yorker points out that China has relaxed its policies somewhat in recent years. “He [Ai] says that’s not good enough. And I think you have to have people like that in a society.”
Beijing television host and publisher Hung Huang says, “Most of the other Chinese artists I know have gone on to having very nice houses, fancy cars, and I don’t think they would do anything to damage their lifestyle. Weiwei would put his life on the line for something that he believes in.”
Freedom fighter includes the workers
Perhaps Chinese citizens love Ai so much because he expresses their own feelings. He also invites them to participate in his art.
Some 1600 artisans from Jingdezhen molded, fired and painted over 100 million porcelain seeds for Ai’s Sunflower Seeds exhibit at London’s Tate Modern. It became an elegant metaphor for oneness and diversity.
When authorities threatened to bulldoze Ai’s Shanghai studio, his fans gathered there to hold a celebratory feast. The demolition was videotaped and shared online.
Flipping the bird at authority
Ai helped design the Bird’s Nest stadium for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. He publicly denounced Chinese government activities afterwards.
He told The Guardian that “the stadium is a work of great quality and design. I only withdrew from participating in fake performances laden with propaganda.” The Beijing opening ceremony “had no sensitivity for the Chinese people; it even had the police force dancing on the fields. This is the fantasy of a totalitarian society. It was a nightmare.”
Ai and his fans raise a middle finger at world “symbols of injustice” in the Study in Perspective photo series.
National tragedy evokes art
When some 70,000 died in the 2008 Shechuan earthquake, Ai blamed “tofu” construction standards for government and school buildings. The official death toll was censored.
Ai’s videographers and assistants visit families of the missing children. Some 5,000 student names are collected, printed and displayed.
When Ai posts the names on his blog, the government shuts it down. Later visiting Sichuan to support an earthquake activist, Ai is beaten by local police. A potentially fatal brain hemorrhage is caught in time. A videographer documents it all. The artist speaks from his hospital bed.
So Sorry! remembers
Weeks later, the So Sorry! exhibit at Haus der Kunst in Munich features thousands of red and blue backpacks. They spell out the words of an earthquake victim’s mother: “She lived happily on this earth for seven years.”
Art Review named Ai Weiwei the most powerful artist in the world. Exercising freedom of expression as a basic human right, “Ai has promoted the notion that art’s real context is not simply ‘the market’ or ‘the institution,’ but what’s happening now, around us, in the real world.”
Early photos show Ai as a “bored Parsons dropout living in the East Village” from 1983 to 1993. He sold his creations on the streets, enjoying the freedom to speak out and meet other artists.
Ai returned to China when his father, the famous poet Ai Quing, fell ill. His father was harassed and exiled by the government. He repeatedly attempted suicide during Ai’s youth.
The artist also fathered a child in an extramarital relationship. Ai is filled with joy during a visit with his young son. His wife, the artist Lu Qing, remains with him.
Ai was arrested and detained in April 2011 for 81 days. Upon his release, the government handed him a $2.4 million tax bill. They took his passport.
In his firm, quiet way, Ai still triumphs. As of January 2012, over 6,000 yuan ($958,000) had been donated by over 22,000, according to cnn.com.
Why risk his life and safety? “Freedom is a pretty strange thing,” Ai says. “Once you’ve experienced it, it remains in your heart and no one can take it away.”
At the risk of being detained again, he keeps tweeting. “I’m so fearful!” he explains. “I act more brave because I know the danger is really there. If you don’t act, the dangers become stronger.”
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry / 2012 / R / 1 hour, 31 min
Cast Overview: Ai Weiwei, Danquing Chen, Ying Gao, Changwei Gu, Tehching Hsieh, Huang Hung, Yanping Liu, Evan Osnos, Lu Qing
Director: Alison Klayman
Languages: Mandarin and English with subtitles