‘Never retreat, always retweet’ would be a suitable tagline for writer and director Alison Klayman’s documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, a fascinating and inspiring insight into the life of the renowned Chinese artist and social media activist Ai Weiwei.
The Beijing artist and dissenter first came to global prominence in 2003 when he consulted on the design of the Birds Nest, Beijing’s National and Olympic Stadium. Shortly afterwards he publically denounced the 2008 Olympics and distanced himself from the project, putting himself in direct conflict with the Chinese government.
A reactionary and agitator, Weiwei wrote online articles daily until the Chinese authorities’ shutdown his blog following the publication of the names of over five thousand students who were killed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake due the poor build quality of city schools. Circumnavigating the communist regime’s ban Weiwei switched to Twitter to bypass the Great Firewall of China.
Spending eight hours a day on Twitter, Weiwei documents everything including the police harassment and brutality he’s experienced. Following his Liverpool Biennial 2008 commission ‘Web of Light’ at Exchange Flags, he continued his politically charged work in 2009 with the exhibition So Sorry at the Munich Museum, which included an installation in Mandarin quoting the mother of one of the earthquake victims using nine thousand coloured school backpacks: ‘She lived happily for seven years in this world’.
A collector of Chinese antiquities that survived the purge during the Cultural Revolution, Weiwei’s art often challenges the idea of past and present, real or fake and this is present in many of his works including the smashing of Neolithic urns. The irreverent treatment of these symbols of the past can be seen as a direct challenge to current hierarchy.
To many Weiwei appears fearless but as the son of dissident poet Ai Qing, who was imprisoned and exiled for his outspoken views, he understands the potential consequences of his actions and is compelled to act, not because he’s fearless but because he’s fearful of the dangers of inaction.
A socialist in the true sense of the word, Weiwei does not accept the elite artist status endowed to him by media commentators and curators, but uses his position to challenge the irrationality of the Chinese state. A year after the Sichuan earthquake project he put a request on Twitter asking followers to record the name of every dead schoolchild on their phones or computers and then email them, not only encouraging people to dissent but to learn how to use the new media.
The 2012 Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Prize winning film tells the story of a controversial artist and a courageous individual who has chosen to make a stand, a contribution and a sacrifice. In the months following Weiwei’s 2010 installation of one hundred million sunflower seeds at London’s Tate Modern his Shanghai studio was demolished. Later in 2011 he disappeared and was detained for 81 days before facing trial over financial irregularities.
Weiwei’s detractors evidence his tolerated activities as an example of China’s progress but that could be easily reversed to say political reformers like Weiwei have changed China.
Never Sorry is a profound and vital documentary that illustrates the necessity of dissent and how art can communicate the dissident in all of us. An eternal optimist, Weiwei continues to challenge the system that at any moment can take-away his liberty or more, and leaves us all with a question: can one person make a difference? But more importantly, what happens if no one tries?
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
Showing at FACT Liverpool and selected cinemas nationwide