Article/ Ai Weiwei:Never Sorry – Portrait of an Artist

Alison Klayman’s documentary is a compelling profile of a genuine rebel. 

By Ailsa Ferrier

Ai Weiwei first achieved worldwide prominence in 2008 when China hosted the Olympic Games. He had co-designed the National Stadium, which became known as the ‘Bird’s Nest’, with the architects Herzog & de Meuron (his next collaboration with the duo is the recently opened Serpentine Pavilion in London’s Hyde Park.) The Beijing Olympics also coincided with Weiwei’s paradigm shift from celebrated and financially successful Chinese artist to that of political detractor. The change was ignited by the injustices enacted by the Chinese authorities in forcibly relocating thousands of Beijing residents in order to make way for the Games and to present a more palatable vision of the city. Weiwei’s denunciation of the Games became a catalyst for further work scrutinising the Chinese government, propelling him into the international spotlight as an activist, dissident and, ultimately, one of the most powerful figures in the contemporary art world.

Alison Klayman’s Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is a finely crafted portrait of a charismatic, radical and inspiring figure. Spanning a lifetime in its overview, the film encapsulates the artist’s personal history, his work and unconventional family life, as well as looking back to his time spent in New York as a young artist. Klayman presents fascinating sequences detailing the production of his work, including the manufacture and installation of the Sunflower Seeds at the Tate Modern. The film also includes the account of a shocking assault made against him by the police in 2009, the subsequent investigation and, finally, his disappearance and imprisonment.

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry confronts the possibilities of the digital age, for both the individual and the community. No matter the level of participation each of us has in the various forms of social media, its influence permeates every aspect of our lives. Weiwei has embraced this wholeheartedly, especially Twitter, successfully employing it as a tool to subvert, communicate and document, all under the ever-watchful surveillance of the Chinese government. For someone who had never used a computer until a few years ago, Weiwei is now an online icon and, like the authorities he constantly clashes with, he understands the power of perception and the force of even the simplest gesture. (The artist’s online writings have been translated and compiled in ‘Ai Weiwei’s Blog: Writings, Interviews and Digital Rants, 2006-2009’.)

And yet, for all his perceived radicalism and forthright approach to dissent, Weiwei is both a likeable and humble man. His simple but effective art practice is imbued with the same seriousness and humour that echoes his approach to the world. He embodies a transcultural and universal desire for positive social change and Klayman’s eloquent portrait marries the man to his myth whilst resisting any urge to venerate. There is no better way to introduce such a warm, engaging and unique individual than through Weiwei’s observation regarding the major difference between humans and cats: even if some cats are capable of opening doors, as one does in the film, they will never close it behind them. Likewise, the story of Weiwei does not close with the end of the film. This is merely the first instalment of this story of a true and dedicated radical.

With thanks to Curzon Cinemas.

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry screens at Cornerhouse from Fri 10 August. Book tickets here