wed 21/08/2019

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry | reviews, news & interviews

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

A polite film about a brave artist who's fearless in confronting the Chinese authorities

Ai Weiwei: watching you watching him

Every year, FHM produces its 100 sexiest women of the year list. It follows a simple formula, since sexiness, as determined by the magazine’s readers, is predicated on fame – a particular type of fleeting, red-top tabloid fame. So this year, top of that list is Tulisa of the sex tapes. Likewise, every year Art Review does its 100 most powerful people in the art world list. So what is it to be the most powerful person in the art world? What is its relationship to fame, market value and fashion?

Last year, it was Ai Weiwei, who still holds the title. One isn’t suggesting that the two title-holders are in any way similar, but both have been catapulted onto a list out of nowhere by events largely outside their control. And in this case, power has been reduced to the level of sexiness as related to a cheap kind of celebrity – it just means that the right kind of art world people are talking about you.

But after two years of open access Klayman gives us almost nothing new

Currently Ai, the outspoken artist-activist, who is undoubtedly brave for continuing to defy the authorities when so much is personally at stake, cannot leave China, since he is still being held on trumped-up charges of tax evasion. He recently lost his appeal to have those charges overturned, and the state is still claiming he owes them £2.4m. He has also been hospitalised (pictured below) with a head injury after he was beaten up by police who came knocking at his hotel door in the middle of the night - an incident which, like everything else, the artist filmed. The beating was to prevent him acting as a witness to a fellow investigator of the Sichuan earthquake, a project Ai set in motion to compile a list of the thousands of children killed in the 2008 disaster due to jerry-built school buildings. These numbers were significantly played down by the Chinese government.

Ai Weiwei in hospital As Ai said upon his release after 81 days' detention in a secret location, “I don’t feel very powerful.” Later he added that “perhaps power is fragility”. In Alison Klayman’s Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, he admits that what motivates him is, in fact, fear. He fears what is happening in his country and fears that if nothing is done nothing will change. "Ai is not the kind of person we are familiar with in China,” a fellow artist says. “He doesn't work within the system. He's just himself."

Never Sorry is Klayman’s first documentary feature. The former Beijing-based American journalist followed Ai for two years, and the film covers the lead-up to two major European exhibitions – one in Tate Modern, in which he fills the Turbine Hall with 10 million porcelain sunflower seeds, and one in Munich, which pays homage to the schoolchildren, numbering over 5000, who died at Sichuan. Ai covers the outer wall of the Munich gallery with a mural of children’s rucksacks, just like the many that were found amid the debris in the aftermath of the earthquake. The different-coloured rucksacks spell out a Sichuan mother’s remembrance of her dead daughter: “She lived happily for seven years.”

That this is Klayman’s first venture into film shows. If you come to it knowing next to nothing about the artist, it will, of course, be illuminating. And since it highlights China’s human rights abuses amid so much current media veneration of the country’s economic power, then it is a very welcome film indeed.

But after two years of open access Klayman gives us almost nothing new, since the veneer of the inscrutable artist remains more or less unpenetrated. Part of the problem is that it’s really too reverential, which isn’t great for a documentary profile. And there’s no attempt at unravelling what one new thing we do learn in the course of this film – that Ai’s wife is not the mother of his young son. But apart from hinting that his wife is really not happy about it, the film is far too polite to probe further, though an earlier interview with his smiling wife belies any such division within the marriage. In the light of what we learn later, this feels a little like stone-walling. 

This complaint isn’t borne out of frustrated prurience, but an acknowledgment that a profile isn't there to illuminate the life of a saint, nor only his good deeds. We want to encounter the man, and it’s natural that we might feel frustrated by the film-maker’s shyness in confronting issues which the subject evidently finds uncomfortable. In his or her own way, the documentary film-maker must prove themselves to be a little fearless, too. And this profile just feels very polite.

Watch the trialer to Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

He admits that what motivates him is, in fact, fear. He fears what is happening to his country

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Average: 3 (1 vote)

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