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Documentary 'Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry' shows artist's boldness

Even though he describes his detention in China last year as 'very inhuman,' he's not about to back down, as Alison Klayman's documentary makes clear.

July 31, 2012|By Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore
  • Ai Weiwei's life and art are detailed in “Never Sorry,” a documentary by director Alison Klayman.
Ai Weiwei's life and art are detailed in “Never Sorry,”… (Sundance Selects )

BEIJING — Ai Weiwei — the Chinese artist and activist — is wearing his favorite T-shirt. Stretched over his ample belly is a photograph of himself. Above the image are the words "Missing" and "Found."

The T-shirt is typical Ai: audacious, funny and dark. It refers to his 81-day detention last year, when the Chinese authorities made him "disappear." Today, Ai, 55, seems relaxed and at ease. He sits at one end of a vast wooden table in the sparse, industrial-looking dining room of the home where he lives with his wife in Beijing's Caochangdi art district. Sunshine pours through the windows.

"It was very brutal, very inhuman," remembers Ai, speaking with charismatic flourish in fluent English last week. As he talks, a fluffy white cat, one of the 40 or so living in his home and adjoining studio, pitter-patters over the table. "They never explained why I had to be there. They never formally announced to my family where I am. I could not talk to a lawyer. Two military police were standing in front of me 24 hours a day," he holds up his hands a few inches from his face to demonstrate, "even during sleep or a shower." He pauses. "It's too much to talk about."

Ai may be a bit weary of recounting his detention, but in the coming months, Americans will be hearing more about his story and seeing more of his work. On Friday, a new documentary about his life and art called"Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry," directed by first-time filmmaker Alison Klayman, an American, will reach L.A. theaters.

In October, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington will host Ai's first major exhibition in the United States, "Ai Weiwei: According to What?" Scheduled to run until February 2013, the exhibition — parts of which were previously seen at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo in 2009 — will encompass nearly 40 pieces ranging from the 1980s to the present day. Around half will be new works. (Ai's separate traveling installation "Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads" came to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art last year.)

Central to "Never Sorry," which won the Sundance Film Festival's Special Jury Prize in January, is Ai's battle with the authorities following the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Ai investigated the shoddily built schools that collapsed, killing thousands of students. "Never Sorry" begins at this life-changing juncture for the artist and ends with a firmly slammed door after his detention two years later. 

The documentary superbly captures the arbitrary, all-pervasive power of authoritarian China. Footage that Ai recorded himself (and which is replayed in "Never Sorry") shows that Ai had been badly beaten in a Sichuan hotel room. The attack led to a brain hemorrhage. Absurdly, when he attempts to protest, police scornfully tell him that he must have assaulted himself.

The intimidation, though, did not work. Ai and 50 volunteers collected more than 5,000 names of students who died in the earthquake to post online on the one-year-anniversary of the temblor. "This act really made the [Communist] Party nervous. That is the first large-scale, in the very open sense, media-concentrated civil act in China," Ai says. 

Such brazen activism has contributed to Ai's spectacular fall from grace in the eyes of Chinese officials. Ai acted as artistic consultant for the iconic Bird's Nest stadium built for the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing; now, he calls those Olympics pure "propaganda" and he has become perhaps the most outspoken critic of the government living in the mainland.

Ai frequently mocks the authorities through his art. One of the best-known examples was a provocative self-portrait in which he was photographed naked,  suspended in the air, clutching a stuffed "grass mud horse" toy (similar to a llama) over his groin. The title of the piece is "Grass Mud Horse Covering the Middle" — which sounds almost identical in Chinese to "[Expletive] Your Mother, the Communist Party Central Committee."

ArtReview magazine named him the most powerful man in art in 2011 "as a result of his activism as much as his art practice." Asked if art and politics are integral to each other, he answers: "I think they're always together. I think who makes art is making a statement — and any statement must have a moral judgment."

But such works, not surprisingly, have not sat well with Chinese officials. After his release from detention, Ai was formally charged with tax evasion and authorities fined him 15 million yuan (about $2.4 million). Colleagues have been implicated in the tax case (two assistants who were also detained remain missing, according to Ai). Last week, he lost an appeal against the tax fine.

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