Ever since denouncing his own consultancy on China’s National Stadium as the “fake smile” of propaganda for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the art-star activist Ai Weiwei has been having problems with authority. Last year he was detained by his government for nearly three months, then put under house arrest until just recently, whereupon he wrote in London’s Guardian that “China has not established the rule of law and if there is a power above the law there is no social justice.” He still hasn’t got his passport back.
Of course this only stokes Ai’s celebrity, which owes much to his having positioned himself as an artful antagonist to injustice. Also, as Alison Klayman’s documentary “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” reveals, it’s the sort of thing that tends to inspire him. So far, at least, the worse Ai’s problems get, the more creative are his solutions.
At heart he’s a concepts guy, and his biggest concepts — transparency and persistence — seem very useful to the study of an ascendant China at its historic crossroads between repressive hermeticism and gluttonous freedom. The essential insight in Klayman’s conscientious yet unfussy portrait is about how the contemporary Chinese Communist Party has produced a culture so desperately in need of jamming, and also the jammer it most deserves.
“I’ve become a measurement of how the government moves and how it acts,” Ai says. How true: One moment he’s been authorized for a handsome new Beijing studio, the next he’s watching helplessly — and photographing, less helplessly — as the barely used space gets revoked and demolished.
Klayman’s aesthetic sense is a lot less refined than her subject’s, but a more important qualification might be her receptiveness. Ai says early on that he prefers hiring helpers to implement his big ideas, and the filmmaker’s access to him seems, agreeably enough, like a sort of enlistment.
Anyway it’s a good cause. Governmental response to the catastrophic 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which claimed thousands of children’s lives because their school buildings weren’t safe, added the insult of intimidation to the injury of incompetence, provoking Ai into a hostile contest of mutual scrutiny. Looking cutely aggressive, like some post-punk Buddha, and confronting the surveillance operatives who always seem to follow him around, he achieves absurd camera-on-camera standoffs in which opposite tyrannies — of old totalitarianism and new media — stare into each other’s abysses.
Obviously Ai has considered how attention from a camera might be applied to both artistic and authoritarian purposes, with illuminating but also deranging consequences in either case. The measure of his tenacity isn’t that he eventually recorded himself getting roughed up by cops; it’s that he recorded himself returning later to endure the bureaucratic tedium of filing official complaints. Arguably Klayman’s title, which also plays on the name of one of Ai’s own films, is a sort of bait and switch. It so happens that perpetual sorriness is the very engine of his defiance.
Filled out by summaries from various eloquent observers, flickering biographical details do emerge: the departed father, a state-bullied, suicidal poet; the proud but frequently worried mother; the 1980s stint as a New York art punk; and more recently, the delicate matter of the young son Ai has with a woman who is not his wife. But for every suggestion of a bratty personality cult, it seems, there is a corresponding subversion. It’s one thing to photograph yourself flipping off the White House, but something else, especially for a Chinese national, to flip off Tiananmen Square. This leads us to a strange and exhilarating new frontier where megalomaniacal art stunts somehow become socially purposeful, and Twitter somehow contains the opposite of nonsense.
Ultimately what redeems Ai from prankish indulgence, or political hooliganism, isn’t ironic audacity so much as expressive sincerity. It’s how haunted he seems by the the deaths of those kids in that earthquake — and thus how moving is the art his agitations produced, including a painstakingly crowd-sourced commemoration of the young victims, whose names their craven government refused to release, and a museum-wall mural made of children’s backpacks, spelling out one grieving mother’s sorrowful remembrance of her daughter: “She lived happily for seven years.”
Ai’s affronted mischief is a human rebuke to bureaucratic subjugation, and within Klayman’s portrait lies a warming hope: that China won’t let him leave because it knows it needs him.