I went looking for Ai Weiwei Never Sorry when I heard of this film, that had been shown at TIFF. I sought an introduction to the artist, because of course Ai Weiwei has a big show coming to AGO next month.
I found the DVD.
Spoiler alert. I am being bad, breaking all my rules in this one. I don’t like giving away parts of films. You should expect that Ai Weiwei Never Sorry records both the creative & political voice of that dissident artist, a powerful film you’ll only dislike if you’re an apologist for Communist China or possibly if you hate art. There, forewarned? Read on if you will, and don’t be surprised if I’ve given something away.
I can’t help myself.
Cats & dogs….?
Our first images in Ai Weiwei Never Sorry, Alison Klayman’s documentary film about Chinese dissident /artist Ai Weiwei, show us cats & dogs. I’m maybe over-sensitive because I lost my own, put down at the beginning of the week.
We see a few dogs & lots of cats. If we judge a society –or a person—by how they treat their weakest members, as Gandhi purportedly said, how do we judge Ai Weiwei at the outset? One of his associates gets testy with a cat that’s playing with something made of pieces of wood (perhaps a piece of art? hard to say).
Ai Weiwei gently stops him from interfering in the cat’s gentle play, saying “he’s not going to destroy it”.
The cat rolls around with the objects, while the artist rubs his ears affectionately.
We see a non-judgmental response from the human. What’s more, the destructive impulses of the animal (chewing, knocking down) seem very natural. If this were his installation, and the cat really destroyed it (notwithstanding the first line of the film), maybe he’d like that.
Running through the film like a leit-motiv are images of Weiwei holding up his middle finger. The Studies in Perspective give us a succession of iconic images –such as the Eiffel Tower or the White House—with a middle finger in the immediate foreground. They are studies in perspective alright, but much more than just camera angles & focal lengths. He takes a Han Dynasty urn and dispassionately lets it fall deliberately for a camera. At one point, when he poses for a photo with some young women, one of them immediately makes a finger for the camera, as though it were his theme-song: and he jubilantly does so as well. At another point –as Weiwei nurses injuries from a beating by a policeman—he makes a film with his collaborators, each saying “fuck you motherland” in a variety of dialects.
Weiwei seems to cherish rebellion & chaos, and not just his own.
We’re told that of the 40 odd cats in Weiwei’s home, only one knows how to open a door. And unlike humans, that cat never closes it after going through. I sense his enjoyment in the resistance to conformity & the roles imposed upon us.
One of the first artistic remarks we hear from Weiwei is something that may come as a surprise. The subtitle (now that we’re functioning mostly in Mandarin rather than that opening sentence in English) says “I prefer to have other people implement my ideas”.
We then hear from one of the artists working for him, Li Zhanyang who made “Zodiac” (i wonder, is this the same as what can be seen in Nathan Philips Square…? i will have to go see…):
“I’m just his hands.” (laughing) “I’m like an assassin, He tells me ‘Here’s some money, go kill this person.’
I wouldn’t ask him:
‘why do you want him killed?’
…That’s silly. You just get it done. We’re just hired assassins.”
A critic in the film points out that Weiwei has surpassed the role of artist, that he’s more than just an artist.
Indeed. Weiwei became famous at the time of the Beijing Olympics, designing the birds-nest shape of the stadium, even though he would eventually make a bold repudiation of the event as a “fake-smile” to the world. His art & his politics are usually inextricably connected & intertwined, the stadium being a singular anomaly. Looking online one finds many explanations, but the one that works best for me is the statement he offers that at one time the stadium symbolized freedom.
That makes perfect sense to me.
Weiwei was still able to function in China because this early act of dissent was only broadcast abroad, and not in his own country. His responses to the Sichuan earthquake, particularly the deaths of school children in shoddily built schools, were another matter entirely, on his blog and on film. With the help of many volunteers he documented the names & birthdays of children killed in such schools.
In shedding light on the lies told by the government he ripped the cover off their fakery, the false pretense of modernisation and openness that had at one time led people to be optimistic about China. Having used his blog as a medium for dissent on the first anniversary of the disaster, the authorities shut down his blog, and put surveillance cameras in his studio.
With blogging denied to him Weiwei turned to Twitter.
No wonder that he was arrested. The official charge was tax evasion, although no one doubts that taxes were simply being used as a tactical form of harassment.
Some of the film goes into the past.
We see his father, poet Al Qing, who had been something of a critic, even though he’d been a loyal communist. And we hear of the brutal treatment he received for the crime of being an intellectual, an artist. For at least seventeen years (I’ve seen higher numbers in other reports) the family was exiled, roughly when Ai was just a one year old baby. This experience only served to harden him, not unlike Nelson Mandela’s incarceration.
We watch segments from Weiwei’s own films, responding to events surrounding the earthquake. After having been lulled by the illusory friendliness of China, I am still jolted by the thuggery on display, a flashback to Soviet-styled repression and police brutality.
It’s not so much about his stature as an artist, so much as his stature as a human being. Any art he creates gains weight from the gravitas of his positions in opposition to the Communists. I want to hear what he has to say, and I believe I’m not the only one.