Thursday, January 10, 2013

"Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry"

If smashing a 2,000-year-old Han dynasty urn does not garner attention, a fully extended middle finger directed at the Chairman Mao portrait in Tiananmen Square certainly will. Ai Weiwei, the politically-conscious independent experimental artist most responsible for China's meteoric rise in the art world over the past thirty years, has campaigned tirelessly for freedom of expression and greater government transparency in a totalitarian state influenced more by Lamborghini than Lenin. His artistic vision, creative process, and savvy use of social media to challenge China's political status quo were documented by Alison Klayman in her 2012 documentary, "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry." Klayman's film seamlessly weaves Ai's roles as a husband, father, artist, and dissident to portray the lack of openness in Chinese society and one man's optimism to build a better future.

The documentary first examined Ai Weiwei's trip to China's Sichuan province in May 2008 shortly after the devastating earthquake that killed over 70,000 people. Ai visited rural villages to collect the names and ages of all the children who died and created a simple spreadsheet of their vital information. Eventually, the 5,212 names of the deceased students pierced through the wall of his home studio in Beijing, evoking Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. Perhaps the most moving aspect of this piece was his use of social media to encourage people to record a name of a student earthquake victim and send it to the artist. The audio component was soon combined with the digital database.

The genius of this piece was the public awareness it was able to raise, notably the call for greater transparency and investigation into shoddily-constructed schoolhouses. Ai's work, while provocative and confrontational, is highlighted by his belief in a better tomorrow. "I think I'm actually an eternal optimist," the artist told Klayman.

Klayman's exclusive footage of Ai Weiwei being assaulted by Chengdu local police, an injury that required brain surgery, and the subsequent ineffectualness of the Chinese legal system presented a bleak image of the government's responsiveness to citizens. While others have been marginalized by political authorities, Ai Weiwei masterfully uses his artistic and political platform to fight for change.

One criticism of Ai's activism is the contemporary Chinese political situation is not as black and white as the artist presents it to his international following. The free market economic reforms after Mao's death have lifted tens of millions out of poverty and allowed others to enjoy a middle class material lifestyle. Most ordinary Chinese citizens are proud of the country's rise in the global political and economic spheres after a century of turmoil, foreign intrusion, and misguided state planning. But a contrarian voice like Ai's is necessary to build a more equitable society and advocate for those who do not have the money or the platform to protect themselves in an age of growing income inequality and political marginalization.

In an interview with Ai Weiwei's mother, Gao Ying, the filmmaker asked how she felt when she saw articles about her son in the press. "I feel very proud," said Gao. "Because he speaks out for the average citizen."

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