Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry: Film review

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

Produced by Alison Klayman and Adam Schlesinger; directed by Alison Klayman; written by Alison Klayman; cinematography by Alison Klayman; edited by Jennifer Fineran; original music by Ilan Isakov; with Danging Chen, Ying Gao, Changwe Gu, Huang Hung, Yanping Liu, Evan Osnos, Ai Weiwei, Iserk Yang, Zuzhou Zuoxiao. Color. 91 min. English and Mandarin with English subtitles. A Sundance Selects release,

Originally published in Cineaste,Vol.XXXVII No.4 2012

A documentary popularizing an artist who is a genius of self-popularization is a problematic, but not necessarily redundant, document. There are risks involved for someone like director Alison Klayman, who has constructed a fascinatingly close-up view of Chinese superstar artist/designer/activist/provocateur Ai Weiwei and his activities over the past few years in her film Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry. Ai is probably the most well-known Chinese artist of the moment, and concurrently the country’s most famous political activist in the West, with the possible exception of imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo. Ai emerged on both fronts since the mid-2000s with major international art shows, buildings, documentaries, and a sustained series of actions challenging various policies of the Chinese central government and security police. Ai’s larger project is best understood as something like a brilliantly conceptualized “performance” of a persona—the avant-garde artist cum rights activist on the world stage—and any film that tries to capture something essential about him needs to grapple self-reflexively with its own support for (or, put more pointedly, complicity in) this very performative persona. Though Never Sorry lacks an adequately self-conscious point of view, it manages nevertheless to introduce its audience to Ai and the many fascinating, sometimes contradictory, always provocative, never ever dull aspects of his complex personality and prodigiously creative life.

Since Ai Weiwei has become the Western media’s current totemic Chinese “dissident” artist, it’s essential that we learn in detail about his background and his activities, and Klayman’s film satisfies this need. As well as her own footage, we have well-chosen archival footage of Ai’s past as a down-and-out young artist in 1980s New York City, interviews with a well chosen range of Chinese and Western commentators on art and politics (the most incisive being The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos, and the radical Chinese art critic Chen Danqing), scenes borrowed from Ai’s own thrilling documentaries capturing his vigorous (and sometimes violent) interactions with Chinese cops and bureaucrats, and footage from his circle of assistants and collaborators. Typically slick and formally manipulative in the approved Sundance/indie-branded docu-style, the film is designed for, and has received, film-festival approval and commercial distribution; manipulative music gives tonal clues; snazzy image manipulations (flashes, stutters, pops) jazz up the visuals, and comforting two person interviews frame issues authoritatively. This traditional, “professionalized,” conservative style in fact does not mesh well with Ai’s own formally fascinating works, and fails to match (and hence is unable to capture) the slippages, contradictions, and complexities that Ai builds into his art and his acts. 

In fact, Ai’s genius incorporates his own personal discovery that you can’t really separate art and acts. His detailed work in both modes—art/politics—which become spatially and temporally congruent as his art/activism matures, continues to explore how a creative individual articulates, defines, appropriates, or seizes the freedoms that only she or he can create, within a political-social sphere that is designed precisely to deny him or her those freedoms. That’s today’s China, whose Communist Party continues fearfully to deny its citizens basic political rights (while simultaneously giving them more social and economic freedom than ever before) in the face of its own loss of ideological and practical legitimacy. Ai Weiwei’s creativity lies in manufacturing freedom in the face of a seemingly monolithic (but actually quite complex, porous, and inefficient) state apparatus that is pretty effective (but not perfect) at denying it to people like him. Ai manufactures this with his art and his activism. 

When I arrived in China nine years ago, Ai was most famous in Beijing as a designer of spaces. Several trendy restaurants I visited promoted themselves as Ai Weiwei-conceived rooms. The construction of alternative spaces continued to occupy Ai: his most famous and successful examples being the series of artist studios and galleries (including his own) in the Caochangdi Arts district of Beijing. His least successful was his uncharacteristic collaboration (with the Swiss firm Herzog and De Meuron) with state power on the monolithic “Birds Nest” Stadium for the 2008 Olympics; his subsequent renunciation of this project is a tacit acknowledgement, I think, that it was his biggest misstep, a perhaps understandable manifestation of how his internationalist idealism got a bit ahead of his skepticism and critical thinking about power.

After the Birds Nest, Ai the art superstar was confirmed, with a series of major shows at Tokyo, Munich, Kassel, London, and pretty much everywhere else. You can’t have a comprehensive contemporary China art show today without an Ai piece, and major international art institutions vie to commission major statements from him, as a veritable brand name Chinese superstar artist. I can’t be cynical about his art: the shows I’ve seen, and the others that I’ve read about, display a thrilling conceptual rigor married to a daring and radically creative sense of deconstructing and reconstructing space, a heady denial of limitations of scale at both ends of the spectrum (5,000 backpacks on a wall; 100,000,000 hand painted tiny ceramic sunflower seeds in the Tate Modern) and an insistence on seeing tradition and contemporary practice as, not simply antithetical, but mutually entangled, mutually defining, in a kind of creative tension, a violent, intimate antagonism that is required to produce the essential and the new (the locus classicus of which is his famous series on dropping a Han dynasty urn). All his art expresses these tensions and ambiguities with both bravado and subtlety. Unfortunately, Never Sorry doesn’t provide much deep analysis of Ai’s art, though it generously shows us a lot of it; it largely confines its commentary to the enthusiastically gushy though not particularly analytical praise of most of its interviewees.

No one would accuse Ai of subtlety as he performs the other, overtly activist side of his persona. As the film explains, Ai maintained an authorized blog that commented on issues of art and politics, but largely in ways that the Internet censoring authorities found permissible. That is, until the great Wenchuan, Sichuan earthquake of 2008. The deaths of thousands of schoolchildren in that disaster in particular activated Ai and moved him to open so-called “anti-government” activity, not just commentary. Casually characterized as “dissent,” but more precisely described as alternative or parallel nongovernmental activism, Ai set out, with a group of collaborators, to document the names and numbers of dead children, against official resistance, obstruction, and punishment. In the aftermath of the quake, it became quickly clear that thousands of children died because of deep corruption in local and provincial governance. Standards for school construction were not followed, as officials all along the line pocketed substantial portions of construction budgets and authorized the construction of what came to be called “tofu buildings,” essentially junk structures waiting to collapse. Ai’s activism naturally grew beyond cataloguing the deaths to supporting other researchers doing similar work. It was after arriving in Sichuan to testify in the trial of one of these, Tao Zuoren, that Ai Weiwei was assaulted by police on camera in the middle of the night (sound was taken, but no picture, and Klayman includes this footage in the film)—an assault which eventually resulted in a life-threatening cerebral hemorrhage while he was setting up a show in Munich. Klayman’s use here of footage from Ai’s group’s documentary Disturbing the Peace (which would have been a better name for this film than Klayman’s choice of another of Ai’s quotations, “Never sorry”) is among the highlights of her film; the other is Ai’s subsequent tracking down of the cop who participated in his assault. Ai, his cameraman recording everything, pulls off the sunglasses obscuring the eyes of this cowardly State Security bully, exposing a face of brutal state power to its victim, to the camera, to us. It’s foolish (he could have been arrested) and brave and also a perfect performance act, capturing in one brilliant spontaneous gesture Ai’s indomitable impulse to seek truth, expose lies, and defy power—to its very face. 

The film continues to follow Ai’s subsequent arrest (on trumped-up charges of financial “irregularities”), his release into a form of extended house arrest (he is forbidden from leaving Beijing or talking to the media or continuing his online activities, though he continues to do outspoken interviews, and you can follow his prodigious output in Chinese on Twitter). Characteristically, Ai found a way brilliantly to subvert the fine (supporters flocked to his Caochangdi compound and tossed 100 Yuan notes over the walls as contributions, all carefully recorded, to the multimillion dollar fine the state is trying to impose on him) and also to subvert the surveillance (for two days, until it was shut down, he set up for Webcams inside his compound at his desk and bed (the State’s cams were all outside) and broadcast online—life as performance—all his daily activities. Surveillance is the state’s paramount tool?, he is saying, then I can appropriate it and subvert it in bold, funny performance. This is Ai’s standard turn: inversion as subversion.

Ai presents a complicated package that Never Sorry never completely unpacks. There are tensions between the creative ambiguity of his art and the direct action of his activism. But there are also congruities: when seen together, Ai’s work and works form a continuous assertion of freedom, a daring, tension-filled construction of liberated space, and a sustained act of performance. That the West has read his antic, provocative, self-reflexive activities too unidimensionally—as Anti-Government Dissident by a Freedom Seeking Artist—doesn’t diminish in the least Ai’s work or works. One aspect of Ai Weiwei’s self-performance, perhaps the most difficult to parse, is precisely his persona in the West. There is a strong element of mutual usefulness, or even mutual exploitation. He uses Western critics, audiences, programmers, curators; and in return he offers them a nicely packaged standard format Chinese artist that they can use. This is where one must be careful: this standard image, a media-designed shortcut that obscures more than it elucidates, can be so conveniently embodied by Ai Weiwei. All this does is to avoid grappling with the essential details of complex, often contradictory Chinese realities. Simply calling Ai Weiwei a dissident elides the spectrum of critical voices present today: from mercantile libertarian through liberal reformist, rational post-Communist, New Leftist neosocialist, radical critic, radical activist, to antistate revolutionary. But Ai fits the preexisting dissident template, so that’s where we put him. 

This is the seed of the phenomenon that I’ve been calling his superstardom. It is media-ready, media-marketable. I believe that Ai knows this very well, and plays with it (see his amazingly prolific Twitter stream, wherein he relentlessly retweets fans’ fulsome multilingual praise—“God Ai, we love you” is a standard retweeted utterance—with unending patience and energy). His frequent English language interviews don’t usually disrupt this image, allowing him to slip quite easily into the role we have prepared for dissident Chinese intellectuals. Of course, Ai Weiwei’s fame helps sell his art—though this doesn’t seem to be Ai’s primary concern. His prices, to date, aren’t the astronomically crazy millions that his compatriots, the all-star (nonpolitical) artists can command. More importantly, though, it is part of the way he presents himself, and is a key element that supports his political work inside China (his incarceration and release might have taken an entirely different and nastier form if it hadn’t been saturated already with Western connections, Western press interest, and expressions of concern by influential Western supporters). But like everything Ai does, he is entirely, and sometimes quite ironically aware of the way Western media makes use of him, which he makes use of in turn. Klayman’s film would benefit from a critical examination of this mutual feedback loop that Ai seems to enjoy activating and playing with.

Ai Weiwei’s reception in China, on the other hand, is quite different. It was initially startling to me that many of my most liberal Chinese friends (i.e., those critical of the Chinese government and system, antirepression, pro free-speech) and colleagues think very little of Ai. They consider him to be a grandstanding showman who acts out, famously raising his middle finger at the Tiananmen Gate, to court Western adulation. Among my more radical activist friends and colleagues though, there is substantial support for Ai. Though Never Sorry briefly touches on this in Evan Osnos’s perceptive comments, it critically lacks any representation of Chinese voices critical of Ai Weiwei other than the official government and its police goons. That stacks the deck, and reduces to boring simplicity what’s most interesting about him, his sometimes antic, sometimes angry, always defiantly undogmatic complexity.

In case it’s not clear, I find Ai Weiwei and his workshop’s activist documentaries to be some of the most moving, incisive, and politically creative video works I’ve seen. Disturbing the Peace (which I included in a Chinese documentary series I curated for BAFICI) is a gloriously dogged, furiously righteous, blackly comic political horror film in which Ai, like a smarter Michael Moore (and with much more personally at stake) reduces cops/bureaucrats to smirking speechlessness. His One Recluse takes on the spectacular vengeance of cop-killer turned popular hero Yang Jia, who stabbed six Shanghai policemen to death after they ignored his complaints of abuse. That film’s closing interview with Yang’s mother is intimate, heartbreaking political cinema.

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, though no simple hagiography, does position itself within the image of Ai Weiwei that Ai fosters and that the West uses, and that’s its greatest limitation. But the wealth of information the film provides, the intimate access Klayman has to Ai, the details she patiently offers of his life—especially his surprisingly soft, gentle, half-tired, half-smiling, never cynical voice—does take us closer to the complicated creative power and carefully articulated courage of one of China’s most important creative and disruptive voices today.

—Shelly Kraicer