Sunday, August 19, 2012

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

“...Weiwei is so shocking because he points out society’s dark side. He does this pointing, very often, with his middle finger.


Last night at Doc North in North Bay, I watched Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (2012), a documentary about the notorious Chinese artist. Since Weiwei was detained last spring and interrogated daily without communication about his well-being to his family or the international community for 81 days—presumably for his activism but officially for tax fraud—screening the film had a pronounced resonance with this week’s jailing of three women in Russia. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina Samutsevich, and Maria Alyokhina, who are suspected members of the anonymous feminist punk band, Pussy Riot, which addresses issues ranging from the environment to politics, were charged with hooliganism. To quote Weiwei (who is described even by one of his friends as a hooligan) commenting on his own struggle, “If there is no free speech every single life has been in vain.” 
 
The film directed by American Alison Klayman opens with shots of the cats milling about Weiwei’s Beijing studio. Taking matters into its own paws, one of those cats figured out how to leap into the air and press on the door handle to exit. Weiwei is like this exceptional cat. That he regards himself as more of a chess player than an artist reveals his exceptionalism.

Weiwei’s mother says she wishes her son were purely an artist, but notes that if no one speaks out, what will happen? Her comment is undoubtedly informed by memories of her family’s exile to a remote region of China because of her late husband’s modernist poetry. Growing up in the family he did, Weiwei knew exactly what he was getting into by taking on the mantra, “Art is about sharing information.” One of his most engrossing projects has been the compilation of the names of 5,212 child victims in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, attributed in part to poorly constructed schools. This endeavour later took visual form in a installation of backpacks that spelled out “She lived happily for seven years” (trans.) and audio form in a recording of individual voices reading one name. As one of his volunteers says, his work “…doesn’t just have to do with art. It has to do with life.” 
 
Blogger and media figure Hung Huang says Weiwei is so shocking because he “points out society’s dark side.” He does this pointing, very often, with his middle finger (see movie poster). The night police broke down his door at 3 am and punched him in the head, causing a brain injury that required surgery, Weiwei shot back with a photo on Twitter, which has become his international mouthpiece after authorities shut down his blog. The price he has paid has been high (he was fined the equivalent of $2.4 million US for tax evasion), but the reward is also high: he was named the most powerful artist by Art Review Magazine last year. Watching him walk through his installation at the Tate Modern with his young son on 100 million ceramic seeds hand-painted by assistants who revere him, one senses his vision and his resolve. “Everybody just live your life,” he told reporters upon his release from those mysterious 81 days. And this is his.