“Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” - Alison Klayman (2012)

The prospects of seeing a film about Ai Weiwei, the well-known Chinese contemporary artist, didn’t appeal to me at first.  The persona he projects in the public space seemed to me somewhat that of a braggadocio devoted to the cultivation of his own image.  But I went ahead anyway and saw Alison Klayman’s 2012 documentary, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, and I came out with a much altered perspective on the man.  The film doesn’t cover all the interesting cultural issues surrounding Ai (indeed, what single film could?), but it does manage to give a picture of a very human person, one with considerably more depth and humanity than first appearances (to me) would suggest.

Actually Ai Weiwei is much more famous in the West than he is in China, where his public activities and artwork are generally suppressed by the government.  This fame in the West is more due to his public image and sociopolitical profile with respect to human rights in China than it is to his art works.  So a filmmaker might focus on one of several dimensions: human rights in China, the Chinese cultural scene, or Ai’s public swaggering.  Klayman’s film does touch on these things, but what ultimately comes out from watching the film is the down-to-earth and genuine personality of Ai, himself.

As the film proceeds, it seems to meander about without any real narrative purpose.  It jumps around in its time coverage, eventually managing to give the viewer some idea of Ai’s personal development and the stormy circumstances in which it took place.  Ai’s father was the distinguished poet, Ai Qing, who was denounced and persecuted by Mao’s government during the Anti-Rightist Movement of the late 1950s (Ai Weiwei was born in 1957). The family was exiled to labor camps in Heilongjiang and Xinjiang until Weiwei was 16. Eventually Weiwei went to study animation at the Beijing Film Academy, and then on to live in New York City, where he made a living as a street artist and doing odd jobs from 1981 to 1993.  During this period of personal exile from the Chinese scene, Ai only heard and saw the news of the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989.  But that event undoubtedly affected him, and it seems to be associated with what Ai represents to the outside world (as I will discuss below).

In 1993 Ai Weiwei returned to China to attend to his ailing father, and there he began to establish himself in the Chinese art scene. As is characteristic of modern art, Ai’s artworks were more on the conceptual than the aesthetic side. In this milieu, artistic success often depends on the degree to which the artist can sell him- or herself to the critical audience. A notable early example was Ai’s Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995) [1], a performance piece in which the artist is shown expressionlessly smashing a 2,000-year-old archeological relic on the floor in order, presumably, to depict his flippant attitude towards cultural items we are expected to treasure. This was the image that Ai came to project: a man eager to “flip the bird” at everything.  In fact Ai is famous for his images showing his own middle finger in the foreground cast outward towards landscapes reflecting cultural and political power, such as Tiananmen Square (the iconic “center” of the Chinese Communist authority) and the Eiffel Tower.

This is the aspect of Ai that put me off somewhat, but there are other aspects of Ai that puts off many of my Chinese associates.  For me, the projection of an “I don’t care – screw everything” attitude was hardly something that would engage my sympathies.  My Chinese friends, however, have a different objection to Ai Weiwei.  They see him as merely a tool for Western propagandists who want to interfere with Chinese society and impose their own narrow conception of what they call “human rights”.  Similarly, these same people see the student activists during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests as tools of foreign agents who were out to humiliate China.  As proof of this, they point out that a number of the student activists of that time made it out of China to safe havens in the West (and, presumably, thereby avoided the harsh punishments that they deserved for asserting their rights to self-expression).  Those student activists, my friends say, pushed the government too far, until they had no choice but to crack down hard on such wanton, foreign-induced civil disobedience.  They also say that the reports of large-scale casualties were exaggerated by the Western press.  But there are other reports that tell an entirely different tale of repression [2,3,4,5,6].  And a personal (and apolitical) friend of mine who was there that evening of May 35th and visited nearby hospitals told me that it wouldn’t surprise him if there were more than a thousand deaths from the carnage.

Although Klayman’s film touches on the Tiananmen Square massacre, it doesn’t dwell on it, since it’s focus is on Ai’s activities, not just on politics. What the film does cover is Ai’s activities in connection with the Sichuan (Szechwan) earthquake of 2008. That devastating event, measuring 8.0 Ms, left 70,000 dead and some 4.8 million people homeless. Included among the dead were more than 5,000 children who perished due to the shoddy construction of the schools they were in.  Notably, a number of social critics complained at the time that local government corruption had led to the issuing of building permits that allowed faulty construction practices.  The local Sichuan authorities unsurprisingly tried to suppress any investigations into what had happened there, so Ai and a few dozen volunteers set out to the provincial city of Chengdu to carry out their studies and document all the schoolchildren who had perished in the tragedy.

The local authorities didn’t like Ai’s prowling around, and had him severely beaten in his Chengdu hotel  room, giving Ai a cerebral hemorrhage.  But Ai and his associates, equipped with cell-phones and cameras, recorded much of what was going on.  In these scenes Ai does not come across as a belligerent malcontent, but merely as a diligent citizen investigator trying to operate within the strictures of the law. Klayman simply shows Ai’s footage, which clearly reveals the contrast between citizens trying to operate lawfully and the face of local, extractive authorities who can use arbitrary coercion to suppress anything that gets in their way.

In fact this gets us to what Ai Weiwei’s art is all about.  As I mentioned, we learn very little in this film about the actual artistic production of Ai’s work. He is primarily a conceptual artist and operates an artistic studio (or art “factory”), known as “258 Fake”, in which his assistants actually execute Ai’s conceptual designs. We do get to see images of a few items, including Ai’s famous room-sized presentation of 100 million ceramic sunflower seeds at London’s Tate Modern gallery. But an overall feel of Ai’s aesthetic genius doesn’t come through. Instead the film presents the artist as social activist – but not an activist concerned with specific political injustices. Instead Ai seems to be concerned with something more fundamental in Chinese society.

The Chinese seem used to living in a perpetual surveillance society.  Even without US NSA-style electronic surveillance, Chinese social life is always under watch.  In almost every area or neighborhood, it seems, there is someone who is taking note of anything unusual happening and reporting it to the authorities. This is apparently assumed to be necessary in order to maintain social order, an obsessive concern that dates back at least as far as the 19th century Taiping Rebellion [7]. Ai Weiwei seems to be expressing in his artistic gestures that he is willing to operate under these rather restrictive conditions, but he wants the information flow to move in all directions: not only from (a) the bottom up (information about the people), but also (b) from the top down (information about what the government is doing) and (c) across the bottom (information from people to people).
But the Chinese authorities only want information to flow one way: up from the people (via surveillance) to the government. What the elitist government does and how it makes decisions is to be kept secret [8]. So Ai Weiwei carries his mobile phone around and records everything that happens, which he then tries to share with others via social networking.  The Chinese government has tried to suppress this by shutting down his blog in 2009, so now Ai communicates to the people via Twitter, which is also banned in China but is followed anyway by the many people who have access to virtual private networks. And so when the government decided to demolish his newly built art studio in 2010, the government placed Ai under house arrest so that he couldn’t stage a public party at the studio prior to the demolition.  But Ai’s supporters went and held their party anyway.

Freedom of expression is, of course, a common concern among public artists, but it stands supreme with Ai Weiwei. Indeed freedom of speech (including all forms or expression) is one of the basic human rights that represents one of the pillars of successful societies. I have argued before that in fact successful societies need to guarantee four interdependent pillars of their social structure in order to ensure long-term success [9].  For brevity, I refer to these four pillars by the term, “RMDL”:
  • (Human) Rights.  These include freedom of speech and the freedom to watch and listen (essentially freedom of assembly). These are fundamental forms of interaction that must be guaranteed and allowed to flourish. Those who are imprisoned merely for their conscientiously held beliefs become prisoners of conscience.
  • Markets.  There needs to be regulated exchange markets that allow the open exchange of goods across society.  This includes the necessity of ensuring sufficient wealth equality across society so that there can be widespread, fair exchange of goods and services.
  • Democracy.  Some form of democracy involving broadly inclusive enfranchisement needs to be in place.
  • Law.  There needs to be a written set of laws that are made known to everyone and that can be changed by actions of the democratically-elected government. The laws provide regulation of the various interactions in the interests of the public good.
Of the four RMDL elements, the Chinese society has in the past 35 years managed to establish M, but R, D, and L are still missing.  This is what imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo [10] and what the signers of the Charter 08 [11] memorandum were trying to attend to.  Ai Weiwei expresses strong support for Liu Xiaobo, and by implication R, D, and L, but his primary concern is with freedom of speech entailed by R. On this issue he is steadfast, as is reflected by these comments from an interview published elsewhere [12]:
“You know, not my father’s generation, not my generation, not even my son’s generation will see voting. . . So nobody can exercise their rights in public, [have] public opinions, or give anything related to public expression. That indicates several things: first you [the Party] are not legitimate, you can never be confident… So that puts you on a very fragile base. This is a fundamental philosophical problem. China has an identity crisis and is not intending to fix it.”
There are advocates of “Asian values”, in the fashion of Lee Kuan Yew’s past governing style in Singapore, who think that M is all that is needed – just forget about the messiness of R, D, and L.  According to this view, an educated elite can make all the right decisions for everyone and avoid the evils of populism.  This perspective also seems to motivate the thinking of the anti-democratic middle class in Thailand and even to some extent some right-wing commentators in the US.  But a successful society needs all four RMDL elements, as the US should have learned when it tried to impose D in Afghanistan and Iraq without consideration of the other underpinnings.

Klayman’s film, however, doesn’t concentrate much on these larger issues, nor does it provide much background.  Instead it shows Ai in his studio, with dozens of pet cats wandering around the premises.  Ai comes across as a more modest person than his public projection.  When he is asked whether his wife objects to the fact that he had a young child from an extra-marital affair, his response seems genuine and somewhat self-effacing. Although the film lacks narrative direction, it does arrive at a closure with Ai Weiwei’s imprisonment in April 2011, when he was held for 81 days and his passport was confiscated.  He was charged with various infringements, including tax evasion, and pornography.  Upon his release, Ai is seen reluctant to speak to reporters and appears to be silenced.  But that silencing was shown to be only temporary – at least on that occasion.

Klayman’s film, by the way, is well mounted and is immeasurably enhanced by Ilan Isakov’s moody background music.  This is an occasion when the music elevates the presentation to a contemplative level entirely appropriate for the complex subject matter at hand.

  1. Ai Weiwei, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, (1995).
  2. Andrew Jacobs, “Tiananmen Square Anniversary Prompts Campaign of Silence”, The New York Times, May 27, 2014.
  3. Jonathon Mirsky, “Tiananmen: How Wrong We Were”, The New York Review of Books, May 20, 2014.
  4. Ian Johnson, “The Ghosts of Tiananmen Square”, The New York Review of Books, June 5, 2014.
  5. Andrew Jacobs and Chris Buckley, “Tales of Army Discord Show Tiananmen Square in a New Light”, New York Times, June 2, 2014.
  6. Liao Yiwu, “The Tanks and the People”, The New York Review of Books, June 3, 2014.
  7. Perhaps fear of another devastating cult-inspired bottom-up insurrection is what underlies the government’s suppression, detainment, and alleged organ-harvesting of Falun Gong practitioners.  Without freedom of expression and inquiry, it is difficult to determine the reality of what is happening in this connection.  See  "Persecution of Falun Gong", Wikipedia, and "Kilgour-Matas report", Wikipedia
  8. Perry Link, "China After Tiananmen: Money, Yes; Ideas, No", The New York Review of Books, March 31, 2014.
  9. RMDL, in “‘Head Wind’ - Mohammad Rasoulof (2008)”, The Film Sufi, January 29, 2013. 
  10. Perry Link, “The Passion of Liu Xiaobo”, The New York Review of Books, (13 July 2017).  
  11. “China’s Charter 08", (translated by Perry Link), The New York Review of Books, (15 January 2009).   
  12. Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore, “Art?”, Aeon Magazine, May 2, 2014.

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