Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

· Wednesday January 16, 2013

Ai Weiwei shares many characteristics with other contemporary art superstars: an oeuvre of works with conceptual consistency but little in common aesthetically, a team of artists who actually execute his ideas, and a preference for large-scale works with real 'wow' factor (i.e., 100 million hand-painted fake sunflower seeds filling the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern). What makes the work of Ai Weiwei (pronounced “eye way way”) so much more urgent and important are the political factors surrounding his life as a Chinese artist.

Alison Klayman's Never Sorry is an excellent documentary overview of this provocative artist. I didn't know much about Ai beforehand, and this film covers all his life and works, from a formative decade spent living and working as an artist in New York City, followed by a post-Tianamen return to China (to help look after his sick father), to his mid-1990s Black Cover, Grey Cover and White Cover books (which were sold in secret by word of mouth) and his post-2000 activist art and online presence.

Ai and his work validate both contemporary art and the world wide web as places for social change and political protest. His use of Twitter is enough to prompt re-assessing the potential that apparatus has, and his punk rock acts of defiance make similar gestures by Western provocateurs look completely empty. Ai's upbringing, his regular clashes with police (which have drastically affected his health) and the routine harassment he has suffered provide back story for an artist whose anger is easily justified, yet who hangs on to a curiously strong and unwavering optimism.

My favorite scene - no spoiler here - occurs in Chengdu where, after being assaulted by a local policeman, Ai spends a long afternoon in a police station filing a report (a report which he is sure will have no repercussions, but which he files nonetheless as a statement). After tweeting throughout the day that he would spend the evening having dinner at a specific restaurant, Ai arrives to find a smattering of locals milling about, all keen to meet their hero, and share a meal. Their dinner together becomes a quiet act of protest; it's a scenario that's inspiring and completely of our age, showing that, in some places, art, technology and community are more important now than ever before.