Shortly before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, an earthquake in the Sichuan province of China killed upwards of 68,000 people, many of whom were students who were in class when their schools crumbled into dust. At the time, Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei was working as a consultant on the design of the so-called “Bird’s Nest”, the central arena for the Olympic games. For him, the extreme loss of life coupled with the perceived inaction of the government held up a magnifying glass to the hypocrisy of the message behind the Olympics, which he called “a fake smile” that was only being used as propaganda for the party and was obscuring the human disaster of poverty and corruption which had been plaguing China. As an internationally known artist, Ai Weiwei’s words carried a lot of weight, making him a particularly threatening figure to the Chinese government. The documentary AI WEIWEI: NEVER SORRY, which opens at Violet Crown Cinema this Friday, chronicles the consequences of that dissent. It is a fascinating look at the conflict between an artist and his environment.
Frustrated with the lack of transparency in government not only in the case of the earthquake, but also the tendency of the authorities to punish”unruly” citizens under false pretenses, Ai Weiwei lives his life with a very high degree of transparency, almost as if it is in defiance of the government, by publicizing his thoughts on his daily blog and especially on Twitter. Additionally, this documentary along with several documentaries he made himself serve to record the corrupt actions the state has taken against him.
However, it is that hostility which motivates and inspires his art. Despite the efforts of the Chinese government, Ai Weiwei continues to create provocative sculpture, photographs, and installation pieces that go beyond making a statement about the government or his frustrations with censorship. His art is not protest art, but activist art. It is art that is doing. Shortly after the earthquake, Ai Weiwei began a massive project that required him to track down the names, ages, and schools of all the children who died because of the possibly shoddy construction of the schools — work that the government was not doing. In keeping with his stated beliefs, Weiwei’s art brings what is really happening, such as the scope of the tragedy and the failures of those in power, into focus and encourages average people to take action as well.
Throughout AI WEIWEI: NEVER SORRY, director, Alison Klayman, draws attention to the changing persona of Ai Weiwei. In the beginning it seems that the more the authorities threaten to silence him, the more powerful and defiant he becomes, inspiring devotion in his fans who call him “Ai God.” However, like many political figures, Ai Weiwei is more human than his public persona allows him to be. He is not immune fear or to serious physical injury at the hands of a police officer; and going up against the massive forces of the Chinese government is not an easy task. In some ways, AI WEIWEI: NEVER SORRY is a modern David and Goliath story, but in this case, he is asking others to fight with him.