Movie review: Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (2012)

How to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of Tiananmen? I watched a documentary about one of China’s most famous modern-day artists and social activists.

You might have heard the name of Ai Weiwei around the time of the Beijing Olympics. He helped design the Bird’s Nest, that funky structure that was the stadium for the 2008 summer games. And then he protested the Olympics. The Olympics which forced out normal Chinese from their homes when their homes were razed to tidy up China for the world’s gaze.

Artists are a little quirky. They look at reality from different perspectives. And often speak up, literally or figuratively with their art. Even Chinese artists describe Ai Weiwei as being different. More different from the typical artist.

He seems to have a fearlessness about speaking up. About confronting the authorities. Even when other artists were being thrown in prison for long sentences. Even when officials were rounding up other dissidents. Ai Weiwei continued to shock with his art and push back against the authorities.

You might say it was in his blood. His father was the famous poet Ai Qing. Although part of the Communist Party that established the People’s Republic of China in 1949, he was purged in 1957. He and his family suffered banishment to the western bits of China.

So when tragedy hit Sichuan in 2008 in the form of a massive earthquake that killed 70,000, including thousands of students in a school that collapsed, Ai Weiwei spoke up. The government wouldn’t investigate, so Ai Weiwei and volunteers did, visiting the area to collect the names of the dead.

Ai Weiwei highlighted the names of the children, their ages, sex, and date of birth on a wall in his home studio. He took photos of the area after the earthquake and posted them on his blog. He highlighted the tragedy in an exhibit in Germany, affixing thousands of backpacks—reminiscent of the hundreds of backpacks that littered the ground in Sichuan after the earthquake—in an outdoor venue. The colors of the backpacks revealed a message from a mother of a deceased girl: For seven years, she lived happily on earth.

His blog was shut down and surveillance cameras set up outside his home studio. He then turned to Twitter to continue speaking out.

He sought to testify at the trial of dissident Tan Zuoren, but was prevented from doing so by the Chengdu police. During this encounter, he was beaten by the police. A month later, while in Germany, he was hospitalized and underwent emergency surgery for a cerebral hemorrhage. Later back in China, he confronted the police again and again, submitting reports about the beating and suing the police.

In April 2011 he disappeared for 81 days. Upon his release from police custody, the conditions of his bail required that he not speak to the media. That he not hold interviews. That he not use social media. That he not travel outside Beijing. He was charged with tax evasion. After a brief respite, Ai Weiwei continued where he left off. He has not been silenced.

One person in the documentary explained, “Transparency is to Ai Weiwei what liberty was to another generation.” Perhaps, someone else surmises, Ai Weiwei was influenced while he was in the US in 1987 by the Iran-Contra hearings that were broadcast for all to see. A government on trial in the public eye. Transparency.

As for Tiananmen, he wasn’t in the country when that horror occurred. He watched it from afar in New York City, where he spent over a decade of his life. Ultimately he returned to China due to the deteriorating health of his father.

But when I wanted to know if Tiananmen was being remembered on June 4 this year, I turned to his Twitter account. And saw through tweets and retweets that Tiananmen has not been forgotten.

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