Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, director Alison Klayman's compelling but relatively conventional portrait of the Chinese conceptual artist and activist, begins at Weiwei's Beijing home, where one of many pet cats is disrupting a project.
"Out of the 40 cats, one knows how to open doors," Weiwei says, and the film captures the feat. "Where did this intelligence come from? All the other cats watch us open the door. So I was thinking, if I never met this cat that can open doors, I wouldn't know cats could open doors." But the difference between cats and humans, Weiwei further muses, is that cats never close doors behind them.
The metaphor soon becomes clear if it isn't already: This is an artist who opens doors, not one who closes them.
One of Weiwei's colleagues on the Chinese art scene, who, unlike Weiwei, studied at the government-sponsored art academy, describes him as "not the kind of person we are familiar with in China. He doesn't work within the system."
Famous internationally, Weiwei was once favored by the ruling regime, which tapped him to help design the instantly iconic Bird's Nest stadium for the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. But by the time the Games were happening, Weiwei had turned to protesting them based on the displacement of Chinese citizens and other abuses that were a by-product of the event.
Weiwei's relationship with the Chinese government became even more strained following the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, in which 70,000 died, including many children inside shoddily constructed schools. Weiwei took the victims of the quake, and particularly these children, as a personal artistic cause. When the Chinese government refused to publish the victims' names, Weiwei, enlisting many volunteers across the country, took it onto himself to do so.
This led to an extraordinary installation as part of his 2009 "So Sorry" exhibit in Munich, which used 9,000 children's backpacks to spell out, in Mandarin characters, a quote from the mother of one lost child: "She lived happily for seven years in this world."
Weiwei's subsequent run-ins with Chinese authorities include a personal attack from a police officer, a strike to the head that hospitalized him, and, more recently, an arrest, months-long imprisonment, and massive fine that silenced him — for a while.
The film also shows how time spent in America in the '80s influenced Weiwei — now widely considered one of the world's most significant artists — via the cultural scene in Manhattan and the illustration of democracy seen in the Iran-Contra hearings, an example of governmental transparency and checks and balances unthinkable in his own country.
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry also serves as a case study in how technology aids dissidents in oppressive cultures, something that we've come to understand and appreciate during the Arab Spring and the recent Iranian uprising. For Weiwei, a smart phone is an essential tool for quickly capturing and posting moments via photos and videos and for his defiant tweeting. Representative tweet: "There are no outdoor sports as graceful as throwing stones at a dictatorship."
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
Brooks Museum of Art, Thursday, December 6th
7 p.m.; $8 or $6 for members