There are a lot of cats hanging around Ai Weiwei’s family compound in Beijing. One of them has actually learned how to open doors. In Alison Klayman’s superb first documentary, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, Ai remarks that the difference between human beings and cats is that when cats open a door, they don’t close it behind them. Klayman’s film is a celebration of a subversive artist who turns resistance into a creative act.
Indeed, watching the film this week as the world waited for the inevitable guilty verdict in the trial of three members of the oppositional Russian punk band Pussy Riot, provoked reflection on the degree to which both suggest that politics is changing in form and content: in the sense of the ideas that move people and the tactics that create involvement. ‘Art is politics,’ said Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova back in January, when asked if the group regarded themselves protesters or artists. ‘We couldn’t imagine ourselves without one or the other. We don’t understand how an artist can think about society but say he’s apolitical.’ Just as Pussy Riot use music and video and their style is unflinchingly confrontational, so it is with Ai Weiwei’s measured but uncompromising blend of conceptual art, tweets, blogs and relentless video and photographic documentation of authoritarianism.
No outdoor sports can be more elegant than throwing stones at autocracy. If we didn’t have this technology [the internet] I would be same as everybody else; I couldn’t really amplify my voice.
If Pussy Riot were punks on trial on charges of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred, Ai Weiwei, having lived in New York City in the 1980s, has soaked up plenty of punk attitude and has, in the words of a fellow Chinese artist interviewed in Klayman’s film, a hooligan streak.
Alison Klayman filmed material for her documentary from December 2008 up until late 2011. She had lived in Beijing for many years and spoke enough Mandarin to shoot alone without an interpreter. She travelled with Ai Weiwei throughout China, and to Europe for Weiwei’s Tate sunflower seeds installation and his So Sorry exhibition in Munich. Then, in 2011 when Klayman was already editing the film in New York, Ai Weiwei was detained by the authorities, disappearing for 81 days before being released under repressive bail conditions. Klayman was forced to go back to film additional footage in Beijing and of the protests against Weiwei’s imprisonment that flared around the world.
Klayman begins her account in May 2008, after the catastrophic earthquake in the Sichuan Province when Ai Weiwei began posting photographs of the disaster on his blog. At the time he was a creative consultant on the project to build the National Stadium for the Beijing Olympics – the Bird’s Nest – but the Sichuan disaster compelled him to lambast the Olympics as a ‘pretend smile’ while he and other Chinese activists began to call the government to account for the death of more than 5,000 children who died in poorly constructed schools – shoddy ‘tofu’ architecture not built to be earthquake-proof because of mismanagement and corruption on the part of the local authorities. Engaged in a cover-up, the authorities refused to reveal either the true death toll or the names of those who had died.
Ai Weiwei told The Guardian at the time:
What counts are the tens of thousands of lives ruined because of poor construction of schools in Sichuan, because of blood sellers in Henan, because of industrial accidents in Guangdong and because of the death penalty. These are the figures that really tell the tale of our era.
Klayman began filming Never Sorry as Ai was working on his project to compile a list of the names of all the schoolchildren killed in the earthquake, and have it completed by 12 May 2009, a year after the earthquake. By the first anniversary the list had accumulated 5,385 names. He posted the list on his blog, but the government shut it down. So he turned to Twitter, one tweet for every dead child. Ai Weiwei’s persistence is formidable: filing lawsuits, making official complaints, photographing and filming because, ‘If you don’t act, the danger becomes stronger.’
Klayman’s digital camera is there when Ai travels to Chengdu to testify at the trial of a fellow activist investigating schoolchildren’s deaths; she is there when the police break into his hotel room at night and beat him. He and fellow activists are detained in the hotel to prevent them attending the trial. In the hotel room furore, a policeman punched Ai in the head, leaving him with painful headaches and weeks later, after arriving in Germany to prepare an exhibition, he underwent surgery after doctors spotted internal bleeding.
Klayman films all of this: she films Ai filming everything. The video of the Chengdu attack is dramatic: the police hammering at the door of Ai’s hotel room repeatedly demanding entrance with Ai demanding to know why, for whom, by what right. A year later, Ai returns to Chengdu to file a complaint about his treatment and there is a scene of high farce when, via Twitter, Ai invites his followers to a gathering at a street cafe.
The police videotape Ai, while Ai’s videographer videotapes them videoing him. Klayman’s camera and the phones of Ai and fellow activists record the scene too. Throughout everything, Ai remains unintimidated: the heavy hand of the state just doesn’t work with this guy. Eating pig trotters at a pavement restaurant becomes street art. The photo he tweeted after the police assault, taken in the hotel lift, ricocheted around the world (top).
Life is never guaranteed to be safe so we better use it when we are still in good condition.
While focussing on the events of the past four years, the film does delve into Ai’s upbringing . He was born in 1957, the son of Ai Qing, one of China’s most important modern poets who fell victim to the Cultural Revolution and himself spent several years detained and in exile until his full rehabilitation in 1979. The young Ai saw his father publicly humiliated and vilified along with many other Chinese intellectuals. In the film, Weiwei’s brother says he remembers their father having his face painted with calligraphy ink and being beaten with gun butts before an abusive mob.
Then, as a young man in his twenties, Ai Weiwei moved to New York, living there from 1981 to 1993 following China’s opening to the West and Mao’s death, part of the first generation of Chinese students allowed out of the country since the founding of the People’s Republic. From the Cultural Revolution to the New York underground art and punk rock scene of the 1980s is quite an education in the cost and meaning of being an artist who rejects conformity. Ai soaked up the ferment in Manhattan, attending punk shows at CBGB’s, making videos of street protests, organizing avant-garde art shows and accumulating a hoard of photographs.
Ai Weiwei in NYC: Tate Shorts
Ai watched the crushing of the Tiananmen Square uprising on TV before returning home in 1993, when he sensed that an unofficial artistic resistance had become possible.
That decade in New York as an aspiring artist had given Ai a taste of democracy and of punk, and infused him with the ideas of conceptual art and the readymade. If Duchamp’s readymade urinal Fountain at the beginning of the 20th century was an original that is still an original, but one that also exists in an altered philosophical and metaphysical state, the same could be said of Ai’s painted and smashed Han dynasty vases. Two thousand years old, venerated, priceless – he has painted them in bright colours or the Coca-Cola logo, and, in the triptych Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, has photographed himself dropping an urn which shatters against a tile floor, so appropriating a cultural object, and then modifying it to transform its meaning.
Klayman does not approach her subject chronologically, nor does she discuss Ai’s work in an art-historical manner. Nevertheless, her film provides glimpses of a body of work that is breathtaking in its ability to communicate resistance in visual terms. There is, for instance, Study of Perspective (1993-2005), in which the artist, his middle finger extended, is photographed at Tiananmen Square, the Reichstag in Berlin and the White House in Washington.
A key section of the film follows the artist to Munich for his So Sorry show where Ai covered almost the entire front of the Haus der Kunst with the gigantic installation ‘Remembering’ which, made up of 9,000 school backpacks of varying colours, spells out a sentence in Mandarin characters saying, ‘She lived happily for seven years in this world’, words spoken by the mother of one of the victims of the Sichuan earthquake in May 2008.
The idea to use backpacks came from my visit to Sichuan after the earthquake. During the earthquake, many schools collapsed. Thousands of students lost their lives, and you could see bags and study material everywhere. Then you realize individual life, media, and the lives of the students are serving very different purposes. The lives of the students disappeared within the state propaganda, and very soon everybody will forget everything.
And so each of the 9,000 school backpacks represents the lost life of a child, while the work itself is both an act of remembrance and of political opposition.
We mourn only because death is a part of life, because those dead from the quake are a part of us. However, the dead are gone. Only when the living go on living with dignity can the departed rest with dignity.
Ai Weiwei had chosen the Haus der Kunst for his retrospective precisely because of the museum’s history: built in 1937 by the Nazi regime, it opened with the anti-modernist exhibition Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art).
Klayman also follows Ai to the Tate Modern, where he fills the floor of the Turbine Hall with 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds, all individually sculpted and painted by hand by craft workers in the city of Jingdezhen, the major centre for the production of Imperial porcelain for over a thousand years. Sunflower Seeds spoke of the growth of materialism, globalization and mass-production in China, and the increasing impotence of the modern worker, creating meaningless products for distant, demanding markets. But the seeds were also potent symbols of the Cultural Revolution when Mao was often depicted as the sun, with his faithful followers sunflowers turning to face him. There was also a meaning personal to Ai: for his father, the poet Ai Qing, exiled in Xinjiang Province during the Cultural Revolution, sunflower seeds were a luxury shared among the exiles there in moments of covert community.
The film’s central focus rests on Ai Weiwei’s use of still and video photography and social media. After the Chinese authorities shut down his popular blog, Ai began a Twitter feed, sometimes posting more than 100 tweets a day. His tweets and photos intermingling his daily life, artwork, social activism and humour attracted over 70,000 followers, many fondly referring to him as ‘Teacher Ai’.
The bear-like, bearded artist makes an irresistible subject, expressing his views to camera with wit and humour, but also precise seriousness. We see him in his studio, often surrounded by cats, supervising the preparation of large-scale works, handing out DVDs of his work, or plugging away on a computer.
The film ends with Ai Weiwei’s disappearance on 3 April 2011 and subsequent 81-day detention on suspicion of inciting subversion of state power. Klayman brings Ai’s story almost up to date, showing how the government set about demolishing his Shanghai studio – originally commissioned by the government when he was in official favour – and charging his Fake Design Cultural Development Company with tax evasion. We see Ai return to his Beijing home after his release, reluctant to talk or answer questions due to severe bail conditions.
Fundamentally, this is a film about freedom of expression, an about an artist who has, through his art and his statements via social media, spoken out in defence of basic human rights. It presents Ai Weiwei as a crucial cultural figure in a rising tide of global discontent, middle finger lifted at those who wield power unaccountably.
The film ends with Ai’s words ‘Never Retreat, Re-tweet’.
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry trailer
Ai Weiwei: Without Fear or Favour (Imagine, BBC TV)
Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds at Tate Modern
In any society, if there is going to be change, it will take individuals, who come from different backgrounds, to show a true concern about the human condition and the rights of people of different groups and the demands of those different groups. So social activism is a natural product of an unjust society. And those individuals, who are devoted to facing this kind of system, must make people aware of the situation and search for possible better ways. Very often that does not happen immediately. But I think they are visionaries, because they believe and trust in humanity. Democracy will happen slowly, but I believe it will happen because that root is in everyone’s heart. Those qualities are so essential and are always connected with happiness and safety, courage, imagination, passion, and action. These are all qualities of life. No nation and people can make that disappear—even under the worst conditions.
– Ai Weiwei, from forthcoming interview with World Policy Journal (blog extract here)
- Ai Wei Wei: the unharmful, gentle soul misplaced inside a jail
- Ai Weiwei: ‘I have to speak for people who are afraid’
- The Biennial’s Web of Light