Art, activism and Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei could have been a model Chinese artist, but he decided to speak out against the system instead. Filmmaker Alison Klayman talks to Crystal Chan about her documentary on Weiwei’s work and travails.

Filmmaker Alison Klayman documents China’s most famous shit-disturber

Ai Weiwei could have been a model Chinese artist. He’s the world-renowned multimedia creator who designed the “Bird’s Nest” stadium for the Beijing Olympics. In Alison Klayman’s new documentary, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, we see that his studio is full of the men and women who actually make his artwork. “We’re just hired assassins,” one jokes. Weiwei walks around, conducting his factory of workers. Modern art produced by the masses: surely, this is something the Chinese government can get behind.

Being on the wrong side of the communist government runs in Weiwei’s blood, though. For most of his childhood, his family was exiled alongside his father, Ai Qing, a publicly-ridiculed poet; the Ai name was stained. The contrast between this upbringing and the freedom of expression, both artistic and political, that he found in New York City as an avant-garde artist — he was one of the first Chinese allowed to study abroad — led to Weiwei becoming the artist/activist that we now know him as. When Weiwei became disenchanted by the Olympics, he publicly attacked the government.

Klayman met Weiwei while filming a short video for an exhibit of his NYC photographs that was curated by her roommate. “It wasn’t the case of reading about a person from afar and thinking, ‘Oh, I want to find him and make a movie,’” she says. “This was a case of meeting an individual and feeling just by the force of his personality that he was both charismatic but also enigmatic: I really wanted to know more about him. I felt that to be around him was very not just enlightening but entertaining.” Klayman, an American journalist in Beijing who speaks Mandarin, ended up filming Weiwei for over two years.



The result is an engaging revelation of Weiwei’s process, if not as a visual artist, then as a digital dissident and community activist. He advocates for transparency, the rule of law, and unrestricted communication. The way he’s harnessed Twitter (which is banned in China) and blogs is a textbook example of how these media can get the word out about meaningful topics. “If it’s not publicized, it’s like it never happened,” says Weiwei in the doc.

All this means that Weiwei has always shared his ideas as widely as he could, through social media and media interviews (although both have slowed down after his 81-day detention last year). The period Klayman captures is pre-detention, however. The gems of the film are the pieces of footage that one stumbles upon only after following someone for years, as she did. “I issued myself a specific challenge to make sure that I was getting moments that I was going to capture where nobody else was there to film them.”

These include poignant and telling moments with Weiwei’s mother and his son. “This is a man who lived so much of his life online and advocated for transparency, so it seemed like the question of where his private boundaries were would be relevant,” Klayman says. This is, in essence, a documentary that renders a promoter of transparency truly transparent himself.


Sticking it to the man: Weiwei



What Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry reveals about the complexities of contemporary China, though, is the film’s ultimate strength. Klayman’s interviews and stories address Weiwei as both an oppressed activist/artist and as proof of China’s growing laxity about censorship. Underneath it all rings a universal question: what is the societal value of art — and can it enact change?

“Weiwei is always an artist first and foremost, which means that he’s not putting forward a plan for political reform, the steps on how we’re going to revise the constitution or leading an opposition party,” says Klayman. “That is why he was able to succeed in so many ways, because he does things as an artist, which is about opening minds and ideas and finding new ways to communicate. An artist can be shaping ideas and moving things forward in a way that’s not directly within the political system, but that’s in a way that actually really touches people’s lives.”

Klayman is saddened that Weiwei was detained, but she believes his position as an artist still enables him to speak louder and longer than most activists. “If you’re just an activist, like for example Chen Guangcheng — if I had wanted to make a documentary about him the last four years, forget about it. Nobody could get near him. He was in jail and then he was under very severe house arrest. Because he’s a lawyer, there’s nothing ambiguous about the work that he’s doing. For Ai Weiwei, there’s all this other room to maneuver.” ■

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry opens August 3 at Cineplex Forum (2313 Ste-Catherine W). The Canadian premiere of Weiwei’s artwork, Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads: Gold, can be seen at the Zoo exhibit of the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal (185 Ste-Catherine W.) until September 3.

Leave a Reply