Back in June, we saw an intimate Brooklyn screening of Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, a powerful documentary about the Chinese artist and activist, and concluded that Ai could teach contemporary artists a few things. The movie has since played theaters nationally and enjoyed wide critical acclaim. After a recent screening of the film in Providence, FP’s Jordan Mainzer interviewed director Alison Klayman via phone to discuss the film and Ai’s profound influence.
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry explores Ai as an artist who provokes the Chinese political machine. Like a good journalist, he’s a whistleblower who, through his art, investigates and questions those in society with economic, political, and social power. The tension behind Ai seems to consist of whether his status as a whistleblower is more shaped by his perception of the artist’s role in society or by the political environment in which he exists.
When Alison Klayman first met Weiwei in 2008, she approached the documentary film project with the question in mind of the potential divide between art and politics and whether one realm creeps into the other. This question, according to Klayman, fell away and wasn’t answered as she continued making the film. “As an artist, Ai is politically engaged and is refining the art of communication,” she said. From Sunflower Seeds to his Twitter prowess, communication and accessibility, both symbolic and logistical, are important to Ai. Yet, one can’t divorce Ai’s personality and political opinions from his work.
“He would still be doing things like this, whether in the U.S. or Latvia,” Klayman said. “He views art as a dance or chess game. The action is just as important as the reaction.”
Part of what makes Weiwei so appealing, Klayman said, is that he doesn’t take himself too seriously. He is fun loving and at the same time communicating serious subject matter. “It’s how he reaches out with important information to younger audiences,” she said. Unlike an artist such as Jeff Koons, whose interpretation of accessibility lies in the commercialization of banal and nostalgic objects, Weiwei takes abstract concepts and makes them physical.
In addition, Klayman also discussed the film’s portrayal of the importance of community meals to Ai. Reminiscent of Tom Marioni’s The Act of Drinking Beer With Friends is the Highest Form of Art, the film is filled with scenes of Ai eating and protesting by eating, occupying a restaurant for a long period of time, tweeting his location, and eating with whoever decided to join him, much to the chagrin of the authorities. Ai seems to have the same philosophy about throwing events for friends, too. Klayman said that on the same trip during which she filmed Never Sorry’s Carnegie Deli scene, Ai and crew traveled to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to scope out the roof space they had offered him. Besides taking a picture of himself giving Central Park the finger, Weiwei looked around and then simply suggested turning the roof into a beach party and letting guests relax and tan.
Currently, Ai is in Beijing. He spends most of his days on Twitter, responding to fans and commenting on the day’s top stories. He communicates daily with Klayman through Twitter and about twice a month over the phone or via text message. In a recent interview with Foreign Policy, Ai aptly stated: “Twitter is my city.”
On October 1, Ai celebrated China’s national day by going with his family to the Great Wall. The Chinese authorities are still holding his passport well beyond his jail sentence. Weiwei had tentatively scheduled public appearance dates in the U.S. this fall. Now, he can’t attend the opening of his own show “According to What?” at the Hirshorn in D.C.. “This is the worst case scenario,” Klayman said.
Klayman herself maintains a Twitter presence almost as active as Ai’s. The night after the screening at Brown, Klayman retweeted a tweet that read, “Sometimes, by covering a story in depth, you change the outcome of the story.” This sentiment mirror’s Ai’s pseudo-existential pursuit of the truth. By exploring the truth behind events like the Chinese earthquake deaths in context of Chinese government censorship, Ai creates the truth, which to him is actually a tangible idea.
Jordan Mainzer is a student of History and Hispanic Studies at Brown University.He recently reviewed the A$AP Rocky, Schoolboy Q, and Danny Brown tour and David Byrne’s book How Music Works. He is the editor of art, architecture, and design blog DRA and was recently featured on the blog One Week One Band writing about St. Vincent. He was also the film critic for Vail, CO tourist magazine KidStuff at age 6, which perhaps remains his greatest accomplishment.