One face was ubiquitous in Berlin last month, and it didn’t belong to Spider Man. S-Bahn stations and bus shelters across the city were festooned with a poster announcing Alison Klayman’s documentary-portrait “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry.” Has this 55-year-old Chinese conceptual artist cum political activist supplanted Damon Hirst or Jeff Koons as the art world’s reigning superstar?
Certainly, Ai is the contemporary artist with the greatest claim to a global perspective and the most profound investment in social media. “I spend 90 percent of my energy on blogging,” he told an interviewer in May 2009, a month before the Chinese government liquidated his website, acting to forestall any mention of Tiananmen Square’s 20th anniversary. Undeterred, Ai, who had blogged daily since 2006, continued on Twitter …
Klayman’s documentary, which she began shooting in late 2008, captures the artist in the first flush of his new fame, preparing for one show in Sao Paolo and another at the Tate Modern that would require 100 million sunflower seeds: “At this point, my head is empty,” he tells the filmmaker. In fact, Ai had just lived through the turning point of his career. The previous spring, he’d responded to the cataclysmic Chengdu, Sichuan, earthquake — in which thousands of children died in the rubble of poorly-constructed schools, a scandal to which the government had responded with an information blackout — by undertaking a massive cyber memorial that would post online the names of the dead.
As Ai’s art is, in part, a series of material gestures (as when he inscribes the Coca-Cola logo on an ancient Chinese vase), he is, in some ways a successor to Warhol, Beuys, and Duchamp. (Asked by Klayman to describe his work, he characterizes himself as a chess player.) But unlike those citizens of bourgeois democracies, he plays for far higher stakes. More than anything else, it has been Ai’s ongoing insistence on transparency — most obviously in the case of the Chengdu disaster — that has frightened and infuriated Chinese authorities.
There’s a sense in which both Ai’s willingness to confront the powers that be and his considerable media savvy are overdetermined. As the son of the distinguished poet Ai Qing, a Communist who, declared an “enemy of the people” in 1957, was sentenced to clean latrines in one of the more remote regions of Mao’s China, Ai experienced firsthand the capricious power of the state (and its fear of artistic expression); as a self-exiled artist who spent a formative decade in New York’s post-punk East Village, Ai received a post-graduate education in grassroots production, media provocation, and aesthetic self-promotion. Having kept a ten-year “camera diary” (exhibited last summer at New York’s Asia Society), he returned to relatively liberal Beijing of 1993 well prepared to assume a leading role in its new cultural underground.
“China is a nation that likes to express itself — just look at karaoke,” the artist once blogged. Ai has no difficulty speaking his mind. He was among the first (and few) Chinese intellectuals to attack the pretense of that summer’s Beijing Olympics — an ongoing critique all the more scathing in that it came from one the architects who worked the monumental stadium known as the Bird’s Nest. Classic Ai: The artist’s immediate response to the opening ceremonies was a blog post characterizing the megamillion dollar spectacle, the most-watched event in the history of television, as “the archetypal example of bogus ‘traditional’ rubbish, a blasphemous ‘spirit of liberty,’ a visual crap pile of phony affectation and hypocritical unction.”
“Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” further includes the period during which the million-dollar studio that Chinese authorities encouraged the artist to build in Shanghai opened and was, less than four months later, demolished — a failed exercise in cooption that might be considered a government-sponsored artwork. But its central theme is Chengdu. As self-reflexive as he is, Ai documents his own surveillance. The film includes footage he furnished of a midnight police raid during which he was so severely beaten he required brain surgery — as well as a scene in which Klayman attempts to film Ai’s subsequent attempt to file a complaint at the police station. (The story is ongoing. It was while Klayman was editing that Ai Weiwei was arrested at a Beijing airport, taken into custody and, after being held for 81 days in an unknown location, was placed under house arrest.)
“If I were making a film about life, I would pay more attention to reality,” Ai blogged in February 2008. “Reality is extremely harsh, but the subject must be broached. I’ve said before that all the defects of my era are reflected in my person, and if I were filming, I would be unscrupulous.” “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” may not be that but this low-key, surprisingly polished first film is an invaluable portrait of the artist as a defiantly free man.
Image: Ai Weiwei in his Beijing studio / Courtesy Tod Alcorn/IFC Films