Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is an engaging survey of the artist’s output from 2008 to 2011. One of the first scenes show his studio near Beijing, where dozens of art assistants are busy creating his artworks. Some are transporting packaged material with forklifts, others are assembling stools for one of this installations. I was immediately struck by how little Ai is involved in the actual production of his works. His detachment captures the fact that his art is driven primarily by his ideas, rather than the craftsmanship or practical expertise we associate with traditional sculptors and painters. But I would argue he possesses just as much creative power and acumen as artists like Michelangelo and Picasso.
The documentary makes it clear that Ai’s art and political activism are inseparable. One of his most important projects revolved around the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, a devastating earthquake that killed nearly 70,000 people. After the disaster, Ai collected names of the children who died, deaths that he attributed to the poorly built schoolhouses. He also gathered (or, rather, had gathered) and reshaped 200 tons of lead bars, which composed his installation ‘Straight’, showcased in his exhibition at the Royal Academy last winter. Ai also filmed a documentary, Lao Ma Ti Hua, to highlight the government’s culpability. The two-year anniversary of the earthquake was marked with an initiative that invited the online community involved. He asked people to pick a name of a child from the list he had compiled, record themselves saying it, and upload it to the internet. Much of Ai’s work is predicated upon inviting wider audiences to participate, in part because this is precisely what he sees the current regime to be discouraging, if not actively suppressing.
Another of Ai’s most impressive enterprises was his large-scale installation ‘Sunflower Seeds’, displayed at Tate Modern in 2010. The work consisted of 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds, painstakingly painted one by one by specialists working in small workshops in the Chinese city of Jingdezhen. The installation showed the production process of the goods ‘made in China’, and encapsulated the notion of individuality and collective society. The shots of Ai walking on the seeds, followed by visitors, were particularly powerful. People engaged differently with the objects, some walking across them, others sitting quietly with their laptop, some picking up the seeds with expressions of amusement, and others simply enjoying the sight.
Ai Weiwei with his sunflower seeds in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. Photograph: Fiona Hanson/PA
Beyond exploring his works, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry portrays the intricate dealings that the artist has had with the Chinese authorities, from his 2008 brain injury caused by an assault by a local policeman to the destruction of his art studio in Shangai. Each occasion was transformed by Ai into artistic performances. The destruction of his Shangai studio, for example, was met with the launch of a ‘demolition party’, where the public was invited to feast on river crabs. In Chinese, ‘He Xie’ means ‘river crab’, but is a homonym for the Chinese word for ‘harmonious’, a key concept in the Communist Party of China’s slogan, ‘The realisation of a harmonious society’.
The documentary reveals a spiral-like trend: one piece of Ai Weiwei’s art causes a reaction from the Chinese government, which fuels an act of protest and spectacle, which in turn causes further reactions. Ai Weiwei aptly describes himself as a ‘chess-player’, making a move and waiting for China to respond. When asked whether he was afraid of more attacks, he replies: ‘If you don’t act, the danger becomes stronger’. The documentary presents other Chinese political activists, and avoids mythicising Ai as exceptional. Artist Tan Zuoren and Nobel Prize for Peace Liu Xiaobo are amongst the others presented as drawing the world’s attention to China’s current political climate.
The documentary also presents Ai’s personal, and perhaps less known, side. We are introduced to his family: his father, celebrated poet Ai Qing (1910-1996), his old and apprehensive mother, and his illegitimate child Ai Lao. We also learn of his time spent in New York in the 1980s, which served as an incubator for several of his later ideas. For example, it was in America that he started using his camera like a diary, a habit that he maintained and that became part of his artistic practice. It may be surprising to discover that during his time in the US, all he wanted was to go home. When he did return to China in 1993, though, the freedom he had tasted had entered his heart, and was there to stay.
The main trait of Ai Weiwei that emerges from this detailed portrait is transparency, which lies at the heart of everything the artist says and does. Connected to this is communication, epitomised by his Twitter account, which he first used in 2008 to evade censorship. Ai knows what he wants to say and says it concisely. The 140-character limit does not prevent him from spreading his message to a wide audience; if anything, it helps.
Ai Weiwei considers himself an optimist, one still exhilarated by life, still curious, and still believing that change is possible. The portrait sketched by Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is indeed that of a resilient, charismatic, and outspoken artist. It is perhaps paradoxical that his backdrop of repression and censorship gives him fertile land to operate, acting as a force against which he can push, putting his ideals into artistic practice.