He is responsible for filling the Tate Modern’s voluminous Turbine Hall with 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds, painting the Coca-Cola logo on a neolithic Han Dynasty urn and most infamously — designing and then boycotting Beijing’s “Bird’s Nest” Olympic Stadium, making his views clear in an opinion piece in The Guardian. Ai Weiwei, superstar conceptual artist and disarmingly fearless activist, does not apologize.
Much of Ai’s attitude towards art and life is encapsulated in a crisp exchange at his 2009 solo show at Munich’s Haus der Kunst. When Chris Dercon, director of the Haus der Kunst, asks if printing the Coca-Cola logo on an ancient vase was a “destruction” of the artifact, Ai says no. Smiling knowingly, Dercon proceeds, “Do you consider this a destruction of a neolithic vase?”
“Do you consider this a very important work of art?”
“Now you’ve tricked me.”
Instead of the bright lights of big city galleries, first-time director Alison Klayman, director of Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry opts for the huskiness of crowded rooms in Beijing. Ai’s story is richly metaphoric, and it is apparent from the film’s opening that Klayman grasps the multi-layered narrative. We find ourselves at Ai’s home studio in Beijing, a quizzical wonderland where cats roam about large blue and green sculptures, an iron fist arises from a bamboo growth and a gleaming sign reads “258 Fake.” This strange world is charming, but also vaguely ominous. Klayman meditatively trains her camera on the brick walls and surveillance cameras that line Ai’s home compound.
Cats take on a ubiquitous, suspiciously symbolic presence in Ai’s studio; 40 cats grace Ai’s sunlit courtyard. One peculiarly inquisitive cat has discovered how to open doors, by leaping and turning the doorknob. Intrigued, Ai observes that the cat, unlike its human companions, never closes the doors it opens. That the fearless feline inspires Ai so greatly is cause for pause, for the situation may hold a key to Ai’s artistic philosophy. Ai likens himself to a chess player — he responds when his opponent makes a move. If we do not push, nothing will happen, and life is always more interesting if we push a little.
Ai’s attraction to the atypical is unsurprising. As the Beijing-based artist Chen Danqing points out, Ai is not an artist who is “within the system” like many of his compatriots who graduated from the Central Academy; Ai is “just himself.” He stands out for his ability to know “what he wants to say with his art … and how to say it, extremely accurately,” as cultural blogger and magazine publisher Hung Huang observes. Works like Grape (2007), a stack of distorted traditional Chinese wooden stools rising in a melodramatic curve, and Study in Perspective (1995-2001), a series of photographs featuring a blurred middle finger aimed at Tiananmen Square and a host of landmarks in the background (including the Eiffel Tower and the White House), make unmistakable statements.
The other star of the show is social media. “Don’t retreat, retweet,” Ai’s defiant mantra attests to his belief in social media as the great equalizer. If Twitter is the key to democracy, Ai makes an exceptionally compelling case for it. His 2010 work Nian (to read and to commemorate) features his Twitter friends reading and recorded names of the 2009 Sichuan earthquake victims that Ai and his team painstakingly gathered over three years. In his office, a wall plastered with 5,212 names acts as a sobering testament to the government’s failure to investigate the shoddy construction of “tofu” school buildings that massively contributed to the deaths of hundreds of schoolchildren during the earthquake. After Ai published the name list online, officials shut down his blog and installed surveillance cameras in his home studio; Ai turned to Twitter.
Ai is a masterful portraitist. In Ai’s documentary on the Sichuan earthquake, Lao Ma Ti Hua, activist Tan Zuoren plants flickering joss sticks into blackening rubble: “If a society, when faced with such a big natural disaster, has no one to speak up [for it], I think maybe I’d rather not be part of it.” Lao Ma Ti Hua paints a remarkably explicit portrait of the sometimes ludicrous treatment Ai has endured at the hands of the state police, who at one point follow and conveniently hold Ai under arrest in his hotel room for 12 hours — long enough to prevent him from testifying at earthquake activist Tan’s trial in Chengdu. Incredulous, Ai marvels at the boldness of a young officer who punches him, “I tore my own clothes and beat myself?” Incandescent, Ai nimbly tweeted a photo of his entourage and the police officers in the small hotel room. The officer’s blow caused massive swelling in Ai’s brain. Ai treated the surgery with characteristic candour, concluding his stream of tweets about the process with, “surgery finished: evil spirits removed.” He even posted an online “greeting” for the People Republic of China’s 60th anniversary. He and his Munich exhibition assistants take turns to say, in their native dialects, “Fuck you, Motherland.”
The film’s genius lies in its unflinching yet compassionate gaze. Klayman shows us the small moments, and as we laugh or shudder we instantly understand why she inserts these seeming asides into an already weighty narrative. Sharing a meal with his assistants on a wintry day, Ai chuckles, “When I eat, there isn’t enough for the rest of you!” Then there is the radiant look in the eyes of Ai’s artist wife Lu Qing, who seemed overcome with emotion in the moment when she registered the weight of their 16 year relationship. Lu Qing’s response is startlingly moving, as we learn that her marriage has not been an easy one. Ai has a young son, Ai Lao, from an extramarital affair.
While best known for his activism, Ai is also a pioneer of China’s contemporary art scene. Following his decade-long stint in New York City as a student and artist, Ai collaborated with artist Feng Boyi to establish conditions for freedom of expression in post-Mao China. The pair co-edited the Black (1994), White (1995) and Gray (1997) “underground” books (or “exhibitions on paper,” as Feng sees them) in which artists and writers could publish anything they wanted. Ai and Feng featured the works of contemporary artists like Marcel Duchamp, Jeff Koons, Joseph Beuys and Andy Warhol. The 1994 edition featured a Warhol portrait by Robert Mapplethorpe. Ai’s wife held up her skirt in Tiananmen Square for the camera. Ai and his colleagues hawked the books outside art galleries, an experience photographer Rongrong describes as “an adventure” that was “very tense.” The books culminated in a 2000 experimental art show, titled with typical bluntness, FUCK OFF.
“Freedom is a pretty strange thing. Once you’ve experienced it, it remains in your heart,” Ai philosophizes, following a discussion of his New York years, during which he witnessed both the Tiananmen Square protests and the Iran-Contra hearings (seeing a government putting itself on trial, and allowing it to be televised, was probably shocking to Ai at the time). Witnessing Ai’s feats, through Klapman’s unwavering eyes, recalls the words of David Bowie: “We can be heroes, just for one day.”
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry screens at the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts Film Forum on Thursday at 7:15 p.m. with a special introduction by Ellen Avril, Curator of Asian Art at the Johnson Museum.