Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (2012)

In April 3, 2011 Ai Weiwei disappeared. He was detained by the Chinese police in Beijing. By this time at least 23 people had been criminally detained on the grounds of motivating subversion of a corrupted system. Ai was held uncontactable for 81 days and when on the night of June 22, 2011 he was released on strict bail rules refusing him exit from China, he said to reporters outside his Zuoyou studio: “I can’t talk, I hope you can understand”.

By then, Ai Weiwei was relatively unknown to the non-art enthusiast but he is China’s best-known artist for designing the Olympic Bird’s Nest Stadium and being an outspoken critic of the Chinese government. His work was greatly admired by Londoners with the Tate Turbine Hall’s installation of eight million sunflower seeds/souls, part of the gallery’s Unilever Series which opened in October 2010. Today, he is best-known artist even to the non-art follower. After all, the Chinese government has acted in his favour and…ours for becoming further aware of an archaic and authoritarian system.

Alison Klayman’s documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (2012) which previewed at this year’s Sheffield Doc/Fest (thankfully, not censored by China) last Friday, previewed at the BFI Southbank yesterday and screening at the Curzon tonight, is an exemplary documentary that needs to be seen by most of us: if we care about protecting our expression and blogging the world’s chilling facts for a better tomorrow.

Klayman, an American freelance journalist working in China, started filming in 2009, on the eve of Ai Weiwei’s preparation for his Sunflower Seeds autumn installation at the Tate Modern and his commission for the São Paulo Biennale. Her incredible access inside Ai’s world gives us access too inside a skilful retrospective of the artist’s work since he was a student in New York, a few years following China’s reform and opening-up policy in the 70s. As a start, we are taken inside Ai’s working environment with his willing artists-volunteers, “assassins” as one assistant likens himself, implementing his ideas. But we are quickly introduced to the cold facts about the Chinese government that Ai has acknowledged and protested against, in favour of a better future in his motherland. Most importantly we are reminded about the bizarre hideout of the names of school-kid victims after the May 12, 2008 Sichuan earthquake that collapsed poorly built schools in Beichuan.

Footage from Ai’s own documentaries, photographs of his work and interviews, including visitors’ comments during his “So Sorry” exhibition opening in Munich, alongside footage of repeated harassment recorded on his own and his assistants’ phone cameras, make you feel angry with a regime where basic human rights are violated and its muddy bureaucracy makes China an even darker place to be. The message throughout Klayman’s documentary and Ai Weiwei’s persona is: “Never retreat, retweet”. Surely Klayman suggests there are many sides to Ai’s personality, from his rock and roll times to his creative productions, protests for social change and interaction with his son. But if you didn’t have the chance to follow Ai on twitter, #aiww, and read his blog (published by MIT Press: Ai Weiwei’s Blog. Writings, Interviews, and Digital Rants, 2006-2009), this documentary is a must see for the concerned human, for change. Because as Ai remarks: “my father’s generation didn’t do a good job” as far as freedom is concerned.

Ai Weiwei created this year’s Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2012 together with the Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron. Ai was absent from the unveiling of the 12th summer pavilion on 31 May because he is still not allowed to leave China.

Guest Editor|Georgia Korossi – writer & curator based in London & Athens