My ego is unshaken, and I will publicly admit to you, and you, and you, that until very recently I didn’t know who artist Ai Weiwei is.
Was it his cover version of “Gangnam Style” that shoved him within range of my radar? Maybe, maybe not, since I’m only now watching it for the first time after more than a year of being aware of it. It’s pretty funny watching the stoic Ai prance around. If I had seen it before, that would have stuck with me, certainly.
Anyhow, the man’s name entered popular culture and it was up to me to catch up with the reasons why, which I recently did by watching Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (Amazon, iTunes), a documentary film by Alison Klayman that follows him during some pivotal moments in his career, almost all of them having only partly to do with art.
In regard to Ai, art and protest are practically indistinguishable, and the creation of one is often also the actions of another. The film picks up with Ai’s challenge of the Chinese government in direct response to the deaths of thousands of students in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Ai works to uncover the actual death toll, and the identities of the victims, even as the government attempts to disrupt his effort and keep the information a state secret.
At the same time, Ai is preparing for a huge exhibition at the Tate Modern in London, but even with a comprehensive biographical spin that well-covers his artwork, it is not that side of the man that comes off as compelling. It’s not what an ordinary citizen is going to take away, at least.
What stands upfront is Ai’s uncompromising chutzpah in the face of a dictatorship. He is calm and defiant, and seems to have no fear in situations where you believe he should.
Ai’s philosophy is simple. He believes in transparency and he believes in freedom, and he believes in both of these especially in regard to his native country. Some may see his art as his actual artwork, but Klayman makes a strong case — without ever arguing the point directly — that his art is the constant struggle between him and the government through direct means, as well as a variety of technological ones, notably including constant Twittering and a popular blog. It is through these that he connects with people who are willing to take part in his actions with him, whether it’s an almost flash-mob style gathering for dinner or a massive on-site party to celebrate the destruction of an arts center, as opposed to a typical protest.
Some may connect with what is more traditionally viewed as contemporary art, but his actions blur the line between performance and reality to such a degree that the line isn’t blurred at all — there is no important difference between performance and reality, and both can be viewed as threatening to an equal degree. All else is academic.
Klayman’s film follows Ai through the bravado of his actions to the darker results of them, thanks to a reactionary government that truly finds him to be a threat. This trajectory might threaten to elevate the activist higher than the cause, but it’s a warts-and-all portrayal that reveals he is just the perfect catalyst to something that is far bigger than him. This is the way revolutions work, and Ai fits that model effortlessly.