“It may be true that one has to choose between ethics and aesthetics, but it is no less true that whichever one chooses, one will always find the other at the end of the road.” - Jean Luc Godard
Ai Weiwei is perhaps the most well-known living artist in the world, notorious for the grand scale of his projects and his unabashed willingness to upbraid the Kafkaesque vagaries of China’s contemporary bureaucracy. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is an unprecedented glimpse into the life of an outspoken political artist, a cultural juggernaut who has taken constant police surveillance and government-sponsored fear and turned them into his canvas.
The film presents a multitude of perspectives on Weiwei’s life. There is a detailed portrait of his compound, 258 Fake, with dozens of pets roaming the grounds. We see his studio, with works in progress and assistants at work. More importantly, we see the artist at work in his offices, blogging and posting to Twitter. More than anyone else in China, the film insists, Weiwei is committed to subverting the government’s implicit and explicit bans on self-expression and attention seeking. The film discusses Weiwei’s earlier projects, including the mammoth research that went into the creation of a list of names — a catalog of the unreported dead from a 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province. The list itself is an embarrassment to the Chinese government, as the death toll was multiplied by the collapse of shoddy government-constructed schools. That the earthquake occurred just before the debut of Beijing National Stadium (whose bird’s nest design was co-created by Weiwei) indicates the complicated relationship that China’s government shares with its most popular domestic critic. And when the author of one of the nation’s most vibrant recent cultural images follows that project with an index of bureaucracy’s casualties, the Chinese government chooses to handle the situation delicately but typically.
Weiwei is happy is to mock the surveillance outside his compound — when on trips often has his cameramen (he documents everything) walk behind the government’s cameramen. One of the film’s starkest revelations is that more than anywhere else, China’s tacit CCTV surveillance (as well as its explicit filming) dwarfs that of other developed cultures. Weiwei elects to turn this system on itself, watching the watchers, and before long it becomes clear that this provocations will come to a head.
Never Sorry is, however, more than a story of one man going at it with his government. We see, for instance, Weiwei’s family life as he plays with his child. Weiwei is a goofy, affable man, who is playful and clever. He doesn’t give many straight answers. When he comes to the Tate to present his massive Sunflower Seeds piece, he’s asked directly about his child, who he did not have with his wife. He dodges a little, but concedes his wife wasn’t thrilled at the idea, and admits that he maintains a subdued role in his son’s life. On a trip to New York, Weiwei discusses the decade he spent there as a young artist. He demonstrates how he used to pack pastrami sandwiches in wax paper on 2nd Avenue for a living. A host of people describe the powerful effect the books (Black Cover Book, White Cover Book, Gray Cover Book) he and a group of artists produced covertly upon returning to China had on a generation of young Chinese artists, introducing them to the art world beyond the country’s borders.
The film insists that the viewer recognize the inextricable link between Weiwei’s work and his nation — each of the projects the film brings into focus has China’s troublesome governance at its heart. Weiwei’s art is essentially political, and Never Sorry offers a fascinating document of one artist’s struggles with a country that is an inseparable part of himself. The film is hardly critical of its titular subject, but it also never insists on leaving Weiwei completely unjudged. No one questions how Weiwei is able to go so long before running into real trouble upon his arrest in April 2011. Watching him return from incarceration is powerful; where he was previously joyous, he’s now scared, cautious, and unwilling to open up. That the government was able to put fear into its most unbreakable critic is one of the film’s closing messages. Though Weiwei has now returned to public life, those three missing months show that the real object of criticism for a film like Never Sorry is never the artist, but the system that silences him.