Artist Ai Weiwei could have had a career and a life that was easy. Maybe. After viewing Alison Klayman’s documentary, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, it is clear that the story of his family’s personal history looms large as a psychological undertone of his evolution.
Catapulted to stardom as creative collaborator for the Bird’s Nest—symbol of the Chinese 2008 Olympics—Ai Weiwei turned acclaim on its head when he declared that the games had morphed into a propaganda tool for the Communist Party. Noting that the event had forced migrants out of Beijing, while advising “ordinary citizens” they were not welcome participants, Ai Weiwei stated, “When I conceived Beijing’s Bird Nest stadium, I wanted to represent freedom—not autocracy. China must change.”
Ai Weiwei learned early on about politics and art through the experience of his father Ai Qing, a renowned poet who was imprisoned by Chiang Kai-shek. When freed, Ai Qing joined the Communist Revolution. However, after criticizing the regime in 1957, he became an “enemy of the state.” The family was exiled for nineteen years to the north, and then the west of China, for “re-education through labor.” For Ai Weiwei’s father, this often meant cleaning toilets. Ai Qing was not exonerated until 1978. When Ai Weiwei speaks of those times he relates to Klayman quietly, “These are experiences I can not erase.”
Living in New York City from 1983 to 1993, Ai Weiwei watched the 1987 Iran-Contra hearings on television, as well as the 1989 events in Tiananmen Square. It was a lesson in the way two different governments dealt with inquiry and dissent. His activism crystallized around the 2008 earthquake in China’s Sichuan Province, when approximately 70,000 people died. A large number of those who had perished were children, trapped in poorly built government schools, which had collapsed. With no transparency in the Chinese media about the disaster, Ai Weiwei launched his own investigation into the truth, building “anti-government noise on the Internet.” Reaching out to volunteers, Ai Weiwei assembled a team that fanned out to towns across the province. The result was a compilation of names and birthdays of 5,212 student victims.
On the one-year anniversary of the disaster, Ai Weiwei posted the list of students on his blog. This act defined the beginning of what would become an ongoing conflict and chess match with authorities—as well as his use of the web and social media to craft a 21st Century riff on conceptual and performance art. The Internet, which Ai Weiwei sees “as a great equalizer,” became a vehicle of expression and connection—a counterpart to his exhibited work. His act of defiance in calling out the surreptitious handling of the earthquake aftermath led to surveillance cameras being installed in his home studio (later addressed in his artwork). Using his involvement on Twitter, Ai Weiwei pointed out, “If you don’t act, the danger becomes stronger.”
When Tan Zuoren, the earthquake activist, was arrested and put on trial, Ai Weiwei filmed a narrative about his trip to testify—and distributed it free online. Yet, he was never able to be a witness on Zuorne’s behalf. Rather, he was detained in a hotel for twelve hours, where he was assaulted by a Chengdu police officer. Months later, while in Munich to install his exhibit So Sorry, intense headaches caused Ai Weiwei to seek medical help. Tests revealed massive brain swelling had resulted from the blow to his head. At the Munich University Hospital, Ai Weiwei was treated for a brain hemorrhage.
In So Sorry, Ai Weiwei blended his artistic vision with a specific statement on the earthquake tragedy. Installing 9,000 backpacks on the museum’s front façade in the piece “Remembering,” he spelled out the words of a bereft mother who said of her lost daughter, “She lived happily on this earth for seven years.”
Ai Weiwei’s artwork often makes use of “shocking” actions to provoke people to think in a different way. In Colored Vases, he used Neolithic pieces as a canvas for designs made with industrial paint. In 1994, he put a Coca-Cola logo on a Han dynasty vase. His smashing of Chinese urns was part of an effort to create consciousness on how “destruction happens in daily life—yet it isn’t considered or thought about.” At his 2010 exhibition at the Tate Museum, he presented 100 million hand painted porcelain sunflower seeds. He tells Klayman that he sought to make a statement about “the diversity of ideas within China,” and how “every entity is its own thing.”
Beyond the rarefied art world, Ai Weiwei uses social media as a means to engage a larger audience and get people involved. He said, “If you don’t act, the danger becomes stronger.” Qualifying Chinese law as “a big joke,” he maintained, “If there is no free speech, every single life has [been] lived in vain.”
Ai Weiwei’s ongoing requests for official hearings into his attack, and the ensuing documentation on Twitter, morphed into an open-ended art project. When the studio he had built in Shanghai was ordered demolished by the government in January 2011, Ai Weiwei’s course of action was to film the destruction.
On April 3, 2011, Ai Weiwei disappeared. It was not surprising that the artist who had stated, ”The world is not changing if you don’t shoulder the burden of responsibility,” found himself in this position. He was held for eighty-one days in a secret location. Questioned daily, he was under constant guard—including while he slept and used the bathroom. The government asserted that their actions were based on “financial improprieties” committed by Ai Weiwei.
Documenting and interpreting personal and public material has been employed by diaristic artists for centuries. Ai Weiwei has used the prism of new media to magnify his actions to an expanded level, translating his outrage at China’s repression and turning it into a primary component of his artistic vocabulary. When questioned on his stance, Ai Weiwei replied, “I think there is a responsibility for any artist to protect freedom of expression.”
The bridge to the film’s intimate portrayal of Ai Weiwei is Alison Klayman. Via e-mail, she answered questions about her path to the documentary, Ai Weiwei, and the role of the artist as activist.
You lived in China from 2006-2010. Did you specifically move to China to work as a journalist?
Yes, my goal was to work as a journalist, primarily in radio, and my dream was to make a documentary film.
Before the documentary, you did a series of shorter video pieces about Ai Weiwei. One focused on his photographic work. Who’s Afraid of Ai Weiwei was for PBS Frontline, and you did a vlog for the New York Times, Evolution of a Dissident. What was the impetus for you to make the transition from journalist to filmmaker? Was the PBS profile the foundation for your current documentary?
It’s funny how all the shorts fit into the creation of the feature Never Sorry. I started filming with Ai Weiwei for a short video about his New York Photographs exhibition in Beijing, at the Three Shadows Photography Art Centre. So this project, and my relationship with Ai Weiwei, was born out of a short film. Then I continued filming for several years for the feature Never Sorry. When I came to New York to work on post-production, PBS Frontline approached me about doing a report, and later after Weiwei was detained and released, the NYT Op-Doc series invited me to contribute. I took some of the footage that didn’t make it into the feature and made that Op-Doc.
You have come to know Ai Weiwei very well. Do you think the experience of his father being defamed during the Cultural Revolution is a subtext to all his activities aimed at confronting governmental power and oppression?
I think that experience meant that from the very beginning, Ai Weiwei had a clear picture of the power of the state to turn on an individual.
Did you have any problems from the Chinese authorities when filming? There are several almost comical sequences where everyone is filming everyone else. The cops are documenting Ai Weiwei, who in turn is documenting them…and you are filming it all!
In those instances, the absurdity of the whole situation always crossed my mind, and I knew these were moments that I wanted to show in the film. Yes, I would also feel a flash of anxiety, wondering whether it was a problem that I was captured on the police’s footage or on the surveillance cameras outside his house. Ultimately, though, it was unclear who would ever be reviewing those tapes, and except for those trips to Chengdu where I was filming with Weiwei at the police stations and outside courthouses (when police did stop me or try to take my tapes), I did not run into any interference from authorities while working there.
There have always been artists throughout history who have been diaristic in their work. However, with the advent of the Internet and social media, Ai Weiwei has taken advantage of a perfect storm and has moved his art into a kind of “online performance” sphere. Do you see the lens of new media as being integral to Ai Weiwei’s artistic expression?
Absolutely. It’s a tool that he has leveraged effectively to reach broader audiences that extend outside the art world, and he absolutely thrives on it. It’s not just about him finding a new way to communicate, but it’s about engaging others in the dialogue and encouraging them to respond in real time, to use their voices and to express themselves.
At Sundance, you referenced Ai Weiwei as both “China’s most contemporary artist and also its most outspoken domestic critic.” What did you learn from making this documentary about how artists can be agents for change, and what do you think creatives in open societies can learn from his example?
This is one of the biggest lessons I learned from this whole process. My new personal definition for an artist is someone who has a vision for a better future, and who uses creative expression to communicate that vision to others. I am really excited about the role of artists and culture in general in shaping our political discourse. In the US, we have to contend with so much apathy in the face of seemingly immutable problems, and facts are driven by ideology as opposed to the other way around. Maybe we really need to turn to the artists, comedians, people who express themselves in the cultural sphere, to help elevate the discussion and lead it to a more productive place.
This article originally appeared on the website cultureID.