Ai Weiwei is one of our most famous contemporary artists, partly because of his well publicized struggles against governmental repression in his native China. His art has been exhibited in Australia, Europe, and North and South America. But his private life has been filled with struggles. When he was one year old, his father (a poet) and mother were sent to a labor camp because of his father’s poems. Ai grew up there until he was sixteen. After that, he floated around a bit, and when he was 26, moved to New York City where he began his career seriously as an artist. He was in New York for 10 years—between 1983 and 1993—during which time he observed the Iran Contra hearings on television. It was revolutionary to him that a government would put itself on trial publicly in that way. After that, when the Tienneman Square protest occurred, he began considering going back to China. The final prompt was to be with his father who was dying.
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is a documentary of his life. Not only is it informative of the numerous events, accolades, and suffering that he has experienced, it captures his personality in a way that written material could not. Although he is low-key and fearless in many respects, he is passionate about human suffering, particularly when it is the result of government lapses. One of the most influential happenings for him, which became a subject of a number of his artistic exhibitions, was the earthquake in Sichuan that killed over 5,000 children who were in “tofu-skin” schools. Prior to that, he had been a consultant for the Beijeng National Stadium (“Birdsnest”) the Chinese built for the 2008 Olympic games. He had distanced himself from the Olympics before the games began, because he felt the artists involved did not live up to their responsibilities as artists. When the earthquake occurred, Ai Weiwei on his own, without any government assistance and, indeed, against their resistance, painstakingly uncovered the names of as many of the stricken children as he could, publishing them and making artistic exhibits of their names.
Ai Weiwei’s work is conceptual moreso than visual, reports his wife, Gao Ying; it is a social commentary that he hopes will provoke action by everyone out of a sense of conscience. His values lie in freedom, fairness, and social justice for all. This rankles the Chinese government, which has pursued him through the years with beatings (which caused a hematoma in his brain, necessitating surgery), surveillance, and in 2011, house arrest for several months without any charges being filed. He persists in trying to make the government take some responsibility; for instance, by continuing to file charges related to his beatings. When asked why he goes to so much trouble without much chance of winning, he says, “You have to work through the system and show it in detail in order to make a critique.” Also, “There are no outdoor sports as graceful as throwing stones at a dictatorship.” He is well known for using modern technology to get across succinct messages such as, “Never retreat. Retweet.”
The documentary, although thorough and extremely well executed by Alison Kayman, cannot possibly cover all the awards and honors given to Ai Weiwei. The documentary was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2012 and won the Special Jury Prize, and it is on the short list for an Oscar nomination (to be announced December 10). In October 2011, ArtReview named him #1 in their annual Power 100 list of the most powerful figures in contemporary art. In addition to artistic acclaim, Ai Weiwei has been recognized for his lifetime achievements in architecture, politics, social science, and human rights by numerous organizations around the world.
Grade: A By Donna R. Copeland