Social protest as an art form
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, July 27, 2012
Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei is probably better known for his dissident politics and 2011 detention by the Chinese government than for his artistic output. For Washingtonians, this perception imbalance may shift come October, when a major solo exhibition of the contemporary conceptualist’s work -- which ranges from photography to sculpture to architectural installation to video -- opens at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. (Two smaller installations of Ai’s art have already opened at the Hirshhorn and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery; they will remain on view through early next year.)
In preparation for the big fall show, documentarian Alison Klayman’s prismatic portrait of the artist, “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” is a useful primer, though it also focuses a bit more on the activism than on the art.
That’s probably because, for its subject, the line between the two is so indistinct.
An energetic adopter of social-media tools such as Twitter, Ai uses the micro-blogging site as a novelist might, creating epic running commentary -- complete with photo documentation -- of his frequent clashes with the Chinese government, whose minions have not just installed security cameras outside his home, but demolished his studio and beat him up, in an assault that led to emergency brain surgery in 2009. Much, but not all, of this stems from Ai’s ongoing efforts to patch together an accurate accounting of the thousands of children killed in shoddily built government schools during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.
But Ai also is something of a general political “hooligan,” as someone in the film calls him. A famous series of photographs by the artist -- called “Study of Perspective” -- features Ai’s middle finger extended defiantly in the direction of Tiananmen Square and other official and unofficial monuments to unchecked power.
Klayman includes telling details about Ai’s personal life and background. During the Cultural Revolution, the artist’s father, a poet, served time in a labor camp for criticizing Communist rule. In the 1980s and early 1992, Ai moved to the United States, living and studying mostly in New York, where the city’s air of artistic liberty -- and world-famous Jewish delis -- made a deep and lasting impression. One very funny scene in the film shows the rotund artist, during a recent return trip to Manhattan, wrapping up enough corned beef sandwiches, onion rings and kosher pickles to choke a horse.
“Never Sorry” also looks at Ai’s creative practice, which these days involves little actual object-making. Given his increasing celebrity, that’s perhaps not so surprising. Like Andy Warhol -- and other artists who get so big they become brands -- Ai employs a factory-like staff of fabricators, videographers and assistants who execute his ideas (though he is, presumably, perfectly capable of doing the work himself, as one of his early dealers notes).
The only artwork by Ai that Klayman’s film dwells on at any length -- aside from the iconic “bird’s nest” stadium he helped design for the Beijing Olympics, and then denounced as tasteless -- is “Sunflower Seeds.” Created for a 2010 exhibition at London’s Tate Modern, the installation featured 100 million hand-painted ceramic sunflower seeds spread out on the floor.
The work looks great in Klayman’s film. And its multilayered meaning -- which goes to ideas about social conformity, Chinese production vs. Western consumption, and the clash of tradition with the demands of modernity -- are strong.
At one point, Ai remarks that the most fragile things are sometimes the most powerful. He’s talking about the precarious nature of political idealism, but he could just as well be talking about his art.
Contains obscenity and brief nudity. In English and Mandarin with English subtitles.