Ai WeiWei: Still Not Sorry
If there is no free speech, every single life has lived in vain.”–Ai WeiWei
Ai WeiWei, the Chinese-born impresario of diversity in architectural design, installation, photography, sculpture and multimedia, is known for his outspoken views of protest against China’s repression of free speech. While other lesser-known dissident voices in China, (even 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Liu Xiaobo) languish in prison for their views without the same level of notoriety to protect them, Ai has become an international hero championing freedom of expression for all.
Alison Klayman’s compelling 2012 documentary “Ai WeiWei: Never Sorry” documents the artist’s brilliance and bravery in the face of governmental brutality and censorship. The film follows Ai as he fearlessly expresses himself through social media and artmaking, with cameras rolling as Chinese authorities shut down his outspoken (and often hilarious blog), send police thugs to beat him up, and hold him in hidden detention.
Described as an “inside story of a dissident for the digital age who inspires global audiences and blurs the boundaries of art and politics,” the film’s successful Kickstarter campaign in 2010, initiated the debut filmmaker Klayman’s role as a global spokesperson for Ai’s release, even appearing on The Colbert Report to speak about his then-imprisonment. Through this platform, the filmmaker was instrumental in assisting with his release, though China still holds his passport and he is currently unable to leave the country. The film, which won a Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012, continues to screen internationally and has been available for On Demand viewing at Netflix, further expanding his audience, demonstrating once again the incredible impact documentaries can have on impacting issues of social change and human rights.
Here is Klayman’s interview with Stephen Colbert:
Ai WeiWei’s mid-00s series of that-certain-finger photographs aims at iconic sites like Tiananmen Square (an image used to promote the film), where in 1989, unarmed Chinese citizens, engaged in a peaceful demonstration in support of free speech democracy, were gunned down en masse by the military. In China, Google searches have been scrubbed of this piece of history, with many young people completely ignorant of the events. This series of photographs have been described by New York Times critic Holland Cotter in The New York Times:
“…Each picture show the artist’s hand making a one-finger gesture, again rude, at a variety of places familiar and unfamiliar. The equal-opportunity dissing encompasses power sites like Tiananmen Square and the White House, but also, intriguingly, Long Island City, Queens. Together with the history-infused sculpture, the antic pictures give a sense of the versatility of an artist whose role has been the stimulating, mold-breaking one of scholar-clown.”
One-time street artist Shephard Fairey, no stranger to social change activism, recently released a fundraising poster of Ai WeiWei, part of a series that has featured global human rights activists and leaders like Aung Sang Suu Kyi of Burma. The poster image, in stark shades of crimson, ochre and black, shows the artist, his head partially shaven with a prominent gash on his scalp, a visual reminder of the head injury sustained in a confrontation with Chinese police in Chengdu in 2010, documented in the film, which required brain surgery. Fairey created the portrait in collaboration with Friends of Ai Weiwei, a group formed to promote awareness of the artist’s status in China where authorities still hold his confiscated passport.
Again in the news again for controversy surrounding the exhibition, “Ai Weiwei: According To What?” at the Perez Museum of Art in Miami, where a Florida artist, Maximo Caminero, protested the lack of local artist representation at the museum, smashed a Han dynasty pot painted by Ai WeiWei valued at 1 million dollars. This act mimics a series of photos, also included in the show, of Ai WeiWei dropping an unpainted piece of Han dynasty pottery on the a gallery floor. Caminero, arrested and charged with criminal mischief, may well have inspired a wry response from the Chinese trickster mastermind.
What are your views on the power of documentary as an art form to champion free speech and human rights? Why do you think Ai WeiWei was released from prison, while Nobel honoree Liu Xiaobo remains in custody? Do you think Ai WeiWei’s continued artmaking and international acclaim will ultimately impact human rights issues in China, even the face of online censorship and erasure of history and news counter to accepted governmental narratives? What is the role of social media in the expansion of Ai WeiWei’s art and messaging?