[SFF 2012: Review] Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
Next screening Saturday June 16 at 6.30pm. Screening details and tickets
Anyone interested in visual arts and/or thinking about getting along to Sydney’s Biennale needs to see this fascinating documentary first; more than just being a tribute to the controversial ‘superstar’ Chinese artist, it is an argument for the importance and potential of art within a society; it reminds us that art can and should be at the vanguard of our attempts to understand and shape the world. It’s also a
For anyone unfamiliar with Ai Weiwei, this documentary is all the more exciting, providing a compact introduction to his creative practise, main works, and overarching themes and interests. The son of a famous activist poet who survived persecution by Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists only to fall foul of Mao’s government, Weiwei experienced oppression firsthand as child, when he and his family were sent to a forced labour camp for five years, for ‘re-education’. Later, he was one of the first generation of Chinese students able to move abroad for study, arriving in New York in 1981, where he became a fixture of the art scene for his conceptual pieces, which altered existing objects to make statement pieces (his first show, called Safe Sex Old Shoes, included a raincoat with a hole cut and condom affixed to the front, in response to the rising awareness and concern about the AIDS epidemic).
Weiwei returned to China in 1993, with an art education and degree of underground notoriety under his belt, but it wasn’t til 2003 that his international career really took off, after he was commissioned to design the ‘Birds Nest’ stadium for Beijing’s 2008 Olympic Games. He later came out as a vocal critic of the Government’s treatment of its citizens during the Olympics, thus severing any good relationship permanently; but he suddenly became an artist of significance to overseas curators, which is when the West started to engage with his work, ideas and activism. By 2009, he was a bona fide artworld superstar, thanks to a dedicated and prolific presence on
Alison Klayman’s documentary presents Weiwei as a formidable philosopher, intrepid activist, flawed human, compulsive photographer and documentor of his life, and a humourist (she opens her film with a charming discursion about the many cats and dogs that seem to have free reign over his compound in Beijing, which immediately charms the audience).
While the film does talk a little about works of his such as the ancient urns he dropped/desecrated-with-paint, and his ‘flipping the bird’ series of photographs, the main focus is his political activism, namely his works to memorialise and uncover the truth about the 2008 Chengdu earthquake (his installation of 9000 backpacks at Munich’s Haus der Kunst, as part of the show So Sorry; and his projects around listing the names of the child victims), and his subsequent persecution by the Sichuan local government, and attempts to file successful lawsuits against them for beating him on one occasion. Seen through Weiwei’s eyes, art has never seemed less abstract and more vital: questioning our values, holding us accountable, proposing different perspectives on the quotidian.