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Chinese artist, activist, and antagonist Ai Weiwei became a worldwide cause célèbre last April when he was arrested by authorities at the Beijing airport, detained in an undisclosed location for nearly three months, and released after allegedly confessing to tax evasion. The Sundance-feted documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (opening July 27 at IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas) concludes shortly after Ai's release; the outspoken artist, for whom interviews with international journalists had essentially been a creative medium like photography or performance, is seen returning home cowed and dismissing the hordes of reporters waiting for him without offering comment. Without ever articulating a political argument, first-time filmmaker Alison Klayman presents ample evidence that the tax-evasion rap is a cover, tracking how Ai, the son of poet Ai Qing (who was first exiled and then canonized) and a co-designer of the Olympic Bird's Nest, became China's best-known artist outside of China—while simultaneously becoming the Chinese government's worst PR nightmare.
The American Klayman moved to China in 2006, essentially at random—she didn't even speak Mandarin. "I wish I could say, you know, 'Oh, I had a good idea that China was the future,' or something like that, but I really just wanted to go abroad somewhere new and learn a new language and try to do journalism," she says. She met Ai Weiwei in 2008 through her roommate, Stephanie Tung, who was curating a show of Ai's photographs from the decade he lived in New York. While making a documentary to supplement the photography exhibit, Klayman realized she'd stumbled on a character rich enough to sustain a feature-length movie. "To watch him make an artwork or make a sandwich, I felt like it would be something that would open up people's thinking about contemporary China," she says.
Around that time, Ai was preparing for two major international shows (at the Tate Modern and São Paulo Biennial). He had also planted two distinct thorns in the Chinese establishment's side. After conceptualizing the event's iconic stadium, he boycotted the Beijing Olympics and charged China with manufacturing "a fake smile for foreigners" while using the games to oppress the Chinese people. After the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, Ai persistently investigated—and questioned the official party line on—student causalities through multiple media: art installations, video documentaries, Twitter. Then, in 2009, Ai traveled to Chengdu to testify on behalf of fellow earthquake muckraker Tan Zuoren only to be assaulted by police and prevented from taking the stand. This incident didn't shut him up—Ai continued to tweet and make work about China's lack of transparency in general and its attempts to shut him up in particular.
Opposition was not exactly new territory for Ai. Klayman traces the evolution of his aesthetic and conceptual interests from deceptively one-note provocations (1996's Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, which documents exactly what it claims to; the photo series Study in Perspective, in which Ai holds up his middle finger in the foreground of snapshots of landmarks like the White House and Tiananmen Square) to more elegant and densely layered recent work like Sunflower Seeds, a field of 100 million hand-painted ceramic replicas stirring up all manner of associations about labor, value, and individuality in Ai's rapidly changing homeland.
A valuable primer on how an artist becomes an enemy of the (closed) state he works in, Never Sorry is unexpectedly substantive as a character study. Klayman champions Ai while politely revealing that he's not a saint, and in fact, his gluttonous human appetites (for food, for women) border on self-destructive. This makes for a more vibrant portrait of a life and ups the emotional stakes of the film, particularly as Klayman makes it clear that life, art, and activism are not distinct practices for Ai—it's all one body of work. "It all comes from the same motivation," she says. "Everything is about communication."
The film demonstrates that Ai is a celebrity among young, Twitter-savvy Chinese, who raise their middle fingers in his signature gesture while posing for photos with him. But his impact within China has been greatly diluted by censorship of his blog and a blackout on coverage of his activities in the domestic media. Klayman says his documentaries about the government's failure to protect and inform its citizens during and after the 2008 earthquake are somewhat analogous to Spike Lee's epic documentary about Hurricane Katrina—"if Spike Lee wasn't allowed to have his movies in theaters or on television, and so he had to distribute them underground," she says. "Most people, if you stopped them on the street, will not know Ai Weiwei by face or by name."
There's a startling disconnect between the reverence in which Ai is held internationally and the everyday reality of his life in China, particularly since the end of the period the film covers. ArtReview magazine famously declared Ai the most powerful person in the art world in 2011, but today, more than a year after Ai's release from his mysterious detention, Klayman says the status of his freedom is murkier than ever.
"This entire year, we've been looking toward June 22, the year anniversary of his release," Klayman explains. "There were these year-long bail conditions where they essentially had him on a leash. There was a bargain, like: 'Look. You have these restrictions, but we're gonna lift them in a year, so behave yourself.' He sort of did. He's been on social media. He has done interviews, especially when it's about the various injustices that he continues to experience. But he has been more subdued."
Then, Klayman says, "June 22 came and went, and they gave him a piece of paper that said, 'Congratulations, your bail conditions are up.' But he still does not have his passport back. And he's living under this cloud of uncertainty." A week after my conversation with Klayman, news broke that Ai had lost his appeal in the tax-evasion case, which was based on allegations Klayman called "unsubstantiated." A $2.4 million fine was upheld, which Ai said he would continue to appeal. In the film, Ai likens himself to a chess player "waiting for my opponent to make the next move." Given China's continued aggressive play against him, at what point might the artist forfeit the game? What if he were to manage to get his passport back? Is he committed to staying in China, or would he get out while he could?
"I hope that he still has that choice. I feel like there's uncertainty about his ability to leave or his ability to come back," Klayman says carefully. "But I think his goal is still to remain based in Beijing as a Chinese citizen." She notes that Ai's critiques of China have a potency and a relevance coming from a resident that they might lose were he to become an expatriate.
"But it may get impossible for him to create and to be himself in a total way," she acknowledges.
He's getting his street cred. When he parachutes out of China, he's gonna be be rich with the sale of his art.
Ai Weiwei, like Louis CK, is a mediocre talent with a fabulous publicist. The Chinese detain thousands of people a year; it's just spun so that Ai's cheap theatrics and ancient pottery smashing are somehow viewed as a threat to the government, which he really isn't. Once some Syrian activist gains notice NY will find another cocktail party darling and move on.
Maybe NYU or Columbia can offer Ai a Professorship so we can financially support him and pay for his housing and offer a food subsidy. This will be a political coup to have another dissident on America's payroll.
@BinkconnReally? You compare him to Louis C.K., easily one of the most intelligant comedians of this or any generation, and claim them both to be frauds? Sorry, you are so far off the mark. Both C.K. and Ai are geniuses in their respecative avocations, no doubt about it. I'm guessing you are just blind to real talent and are more concerned with your OWN traipsings around the cocktail party circuit. Me, I don't go to those and don't let their opinions affect mine, unlike you. Go back to your drinkiepoos, dahling...
@Binkconn In the bad old days of China, the Chinese would have just ended his life and his body dumped in the ocean. No forensics. The CCP now tolerate dissidents and allow them to complain.
I don't go to cocktail parties, moron; I was obviously commenting on a lifestyle other than my own, but this is obviously too great a concept for you. And Who are you kidding? Louie CK just turns a camera on the pointless, shapeless, everyday life of a New York schlub and everyone falls all over themselves in praise. Just get on the critics lemming train, ILPS, you'll be perfectly at home there.
Seems to me that someone who mentions and then complains so much about not going to cocktail parties, must be going. I'm guessing you've heard the phrase "methinks doth protest too much"? But that's besides the point.
If anyone is on a lemming train, it would seem to be you. These days, as soon as any artist gets well-known enough to the general public, there is a backlash about that artist. Taking you at your word, you may not actually like either Ai or C.K., but have joined the 'backlash' lemming train nonetheless.
I was a fan of both early on (no brag, just fact), before Ai was arrested by the Chinese government, and before C.K.'s current show. I, for one, am not falling over anyone, and they're not falling over me either, as I don't tend to associate with hangers-on, nor let critics make choices for me. The critics seem to think that "Wilfred", which is on just before "Louie" on FX is great. I think it's an immense pile of worthless steaming excrement (as was its Australian version). No trains would likely ever let me on.
So what is wrong about C.K. turning a "camera on the pointless, shapeless, everyday life of a New York schlub"? Which one of those attributes is your problem? The pointlessness? Probably 90% of sitcoms are pointless in their depictions of everyday life. The word cookie-cutter comes to mind. Is it because he's a schlub? The schlub is a traditional character in American comedy going back to (at least) vaudeville. Is that the problem? You'd prefer Louis to NOT play Louie as a version of himself. Perhaps you'd prefer him as a Wall Street banker? I must say I am quite surprised that "Louie" is up for so many awards, as the majority of the TV industry is filled with imbeciles of the highest order.
As for Ai, it's nice to know that you are with the Chinese government in your dislike for him - I'll bet you're proud of that! Maybe you just hate us (and him) for our freedoms...
P.S.: You're reading this at least 5 hours later than I wrote this because Livefyre is a fucked-up commenting system...
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