Sunday, August 26, 2012

never sorry

ai wei wei at his recent show at the tate modern, right before being detained for 81 days by the chinese government
"i have more fear than most people, so i have to act more brave," says chinese artist and dissident ai wei wei in the new documentary ai wei wei: never sorry by allison klayman.

ai's acts of bravery, and his commitment to acting, and acting, and acting some more in the face of almost certain failure, form the core of this inspiring documentary.  his ability to turn tight places into opportunities seems to be one of his great gifts.  when his blog is shut down, he starts tweeting, sometimes for eight hours a day.  when the government orders the demolition of his studio in shanghai, he turns the demolition into a giant party.  in one of the funniest scenes in the film, one of ai's assistants and a police official who is openly documenting ai in an attempt to intimidate him, film each other at close range, pointing their cameras in each other's faces like a dare, like fingers jabbing at the beginning of a bar fight.

in one of the most moving scenes in the film, we hear names of children who died in the 2008 earthquake, names that the government tried to keep secret, read by chinese citizens who participated in ai wei wei's earth quake memorial--a different voice for each child.

klayman's filmmaking is as clear as wei wei's purpose and vision--we see this artist's work in the context of the political and social ends it reaches for, but klayman also brilliantly, almost without notice, points out the aesthetic nuances of the pieces through her editing and imagery.  the field of 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds painted by artisian porcelain makers in china and ultimately showcased in ai's tate show "the unilever series" near the end of the film,  is first introduced to us in dribs and drabs:  jars of the seeds on the kitchen counter (you might think they were real seeds) an envelope of seeds being opened and poured into a bowl, an earlier small piece of art he created covered in sunflower seeds.  you might think:  what's with all the sunflower seeds?  by the end of the film, when you see museum patrons crunching in their heels over the vast field of hand-painted seeds, when you see the various sizes and shapes of shoes traipsing over the nearly, but not quite, uniform objects, when you hear the slightly varied footsteps, depending on the size of the walker, the type of sole of the shoe being worn, etc.  you begin, just begin, to understand what the piece is about.  or, if you don't understand, you just enjoy the imagery, the scale, the accomplishment of such a vast work.  even more so because, in small glimpses, we were shown the seeds being accumulated, painted, shipped, and installed in the museum.

one comes to appreciate through these subtle glimpses, the meeting of old and new that makes ai's work so exciting:  the painstaking slowness of  artisan porcelain makers creating millions of faux sunflower seeds vs. the instantaneous event created on twitter, the power of the camera and social media vs. the power of a blow to the head by a single police officer acting on behalf of the chinese government.

the film is also just plain beautiful:  klayman intersperses tiny glimpses of wei wei's cat stretching and arching in his zen-like courtyard with the more chaotic scenes of violence, protest and horror that have taken place over the course of ai's history.  we catch, for just a moment, the grungy white camera observing wei wei's home, the dented tin mirror reflecting his comings and goings, reminiscent of the mirror catching van eyck's little self-portrat in the arnolfini wedding; klayman reminds us, mostly through these images of documentation, the recordings of recordings being made, the filmings of filming and picture taking, that the recording and documenting of events is the most central activity of wei wei's life now.  and the film includes allusions to the documenting of a documentary happening as the film is being made.  as ai wei wei is recorded, so he records, and he invites us all into this brave new world of recursivity along with him.  actually, he makes us want nothing more than to speak out and on the record, to be a little braver, to do work that is a little more significant.

ai spent twelve years in new york city, beginning in 1983, and you can see how the punk, d.i.y., no-holds-barred bad assery of early '80's new york informed & honed his skill at taking weaknesses and turning them into strengths.

like ghandi or dr. king, he knows that opening himself up to acts of injustice publicly is his best chance to create change.

ai wei wei fills the screen with his corporeality.  he has a reassuring but ebullient presence that makes you feel alternately that everything will be okay as long as some one is willing to act, to speak out, and also that you know, you know something bad is going to happen to him.  and he knows it, too.  even as he clowns and flips the bird at his oppressors.his puffy face and circumflex eyebrows are both comical and appealing, and he projects the kind of serenity only a person who has resigned himself to death in the name of truth & righteousness can emanate.

at the end of the film, ai wei wei disappears for 81 days.  when he reappears, his big, comforting belly significantly shrunken, his smile almost gone, his color dampened and greyed, and his voice temporarily silenced, a major art magazine names him the world's most powerful artist.

"but i don't feel powerful," he tells an interviewer.  "i feel fragile.  maybe my fragility makes me powerful."


we still know.  something bad will happen to him.  and it's okay.  power lies, always, in our willingness to make fragile own personal safety for the sake of another person, or for a lot of other people, and to always speak, always act, when we see oppression.

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