‘Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry’ Is A Necessary Reminder Of The Power Of Art

I realise I might be making a vital mistake by writing this as it forces me to admit that I only just watched Never Sorry, a documentary on contemporary Chinese artist and activist, Ai Wei Wei, directed by Alison Klayman and made way back in 2012. However, the first week of 2015 is certainly no time to ponder excuses, so I’ll just say thank you, Netflix and better late than never.

The truth is, I’m glad I was late to the party on this one, because a good dose of a fearless artist determined to change the world no matter the cost, is probably the best possible way to start my new year.

I will restrain myself from recounting the entire movie, because many of you will have already seen it and the rest should experience its’ magic for yourselves, but here are some of the moments that moved me most:

1) The Munich Backpacks

Ai Weiwei, Remembering, 2009, backpacks on the facade of the Haus der Kunst, Munich
Ai Weiwei, Remembering, 2009, backpacks on the facade of the Haus der Kunst, Munich

This installation, comprised of 9,000 children’s backpacks, was mounted to commemorate the thousands of children who lost their lives in the 2008 Sichuan Province earthquake. The Chinese government failed to take responsibility for these tragic deaths (most of which occurred in poorly constructed state schools), and refused to publicly acknowledge the death toll, so Wei Wei took matters into his own hands. He visited the destroyed areas, speaking with parents and school teachers to find out exactly who passed away in the disaster along with their name and birthday.

Making sure these children are honoured and remembered has been the launching point for more than one excruciating Wei Wei work, but this one especially got to me. The writing spells out “She lived happily for seven years in this world” which is how one of the victim’s parents told the artist they hoped their daughter would be remembered.

2) Fuck you, motherland

Ai Wei Wei in front of Chinese characters spelling "Fuck you, motherland."
Ai Wei Wei in front of Chinese characters spelling “Fuck you, motherland.”

In which 8 Chinese people, including the artist himself, each exclaim “fuck you, motherland” on camera, in their own unique dialect. The video, which was made before Chinese authorities secretly detained Wei Wei for 81 days, but after a policeman beat him to the point he needed an operation, ends with the image of the Chinese characters for “fuck you, motherland” written on a whiteboard. The sheer guts of someone who’s undergone such torment by his government to just shove it all back in their face is mind blowing, and simultaneously a somehow comforting though burdensome reminder of how powerful art can be.

3) Shanghai studio river crab party

Ai Weiwei / River Crab Feast @ Shanghai Studio from An Xiao Mina on Vimeo.

In 2010, Ai Wei Wei’s Shanghai studio was condemned to demolition by local authorities. Instead of protesting, Wei Wei tweeted an invitation to his followers to join him for a river crab lunch to be held at the location prior to it being razed. The reason for this particular crustacean treat is a play on words for the Chinese government’s slogan, “harmonise,” which sounds suspiciously close to the Chinese word for river crab. However, “harmonise” is also a common euphemism in China for government censorship so it all comes full circle. As it happens, the artist was placed under house arrest right before the event so he was unable to attend himself. Nonetheless flocks of followers showed up with plenty of crab to go around so despite the government’s obvious efforts to the contrary, there’s no denying that Wei Wei won that round.

Art is an instrument for change. Yes it is something to admire and to enjoy, to stare blankly at or in awe of, but it also a powerful tool for social justice. It is a medium that in the hands of the right people can actually change the world. I’ll admit I needed this film to remind me of that, but after watching it I know I’ll never forget again.

“There is a responsibility for any artist to protect freedom of expression.” — Ai Wei Wei

– India Irving

Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry is available on US Netflix as well as on DVD through Amazon and others.

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