- - Thursday, July 26, 2012

Until his arrest in April 2011, Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei walked a careful line in flouting the government without pushing past the point of what the Chinese courts call “incitement to subversion of state power.”

How this was possible is a bit of a mystery — Mr. Ai’s two decades spent as a leader in China’s art world focused almost entirely on the incitement to subversion of state power, first through energizing and stimulating underground artists, and eventually by engaging the implacable machinery of the totalitarian state as a kind of found material for his own art.

It’s possible that Chinese authorities found him to be more of a curiosity and a potential ally than a real threat.

Mr. Ai spent some of his childhood in a re-education camp, because his father, the poet Ai Qing, fell out of favor with the revolutionary government in the late 1950s. While most big-name Chinese artists boast academy training, Mr. Ai charted his own path through the Chinese art world.

He left China in the early 1980s to study in New York as one of the first Chinese students permitted to do so. In New York, he photographed the squatter riots in Tompkins Square Park as gentrification was beginning to change the character of the East Village and the Bowery. He fell in with a group of artists who were experimenting with performance art, mixed media, video installations and other emerging styles. He watched the Tiananmen Square uprising unfold on American television, but according to Evan Osnos, China correspondent for the New Yorker, it was the Iran-Contra hearings — the spectacle of a government publicly and systematically airing its own dirty laundry — that truly revolutionized Mr. Ai.

Returning to China in 1993, Mr. Ai was a leader in a group of artists that disseminated their work in underground (and illegal) books. Yet Mr. Ai maintained enough favor with the authorities to merit a commission to design the Bird’s Nest stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. This perhaps more reflects tensions within the upper reaches of the Chinese bureaucracy than Mr. Ai’s attempts to accommodate the regime.

When the Olympics were under way, the artist denounced the policy of evicting poor city dwellers, many undocumented rural migrants, to make space for development tied to the games. In one famous mobile-phone photograph that went viral on the Internet, Mr. Ai extends a middle finger to the stadium he helped design.

Alison Klayman’s documentary provides an ideal vehicle for meeting Mr. Ai, because so much of his recent work is done on video. He comes across as earthy, driven, plain-spoken and boisterous — more than willing to trade taunts with policemen and others in China’s vast security apparatus.

In the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake in 2008 that killed more than 70,000 people, Mr. Ai launched an effort to ascertain the true death toll of the students who were killed in schools, in large part because of shoddy construction. In the course of this project, Mr. Ai was assaulted by local police while traveling to testify in the trial of activist Tan Zuoren, who had asked people who lost children in the quake to set up a victim database. Mr. Ai documented the assault, as well as his quixotic efforts to press charges against the police and then to file a civil lawsuit.

Mr. Ai also was quick to discover Twitter as a means to disseminate his message of individual freedom of expression and to publicize his own willingness to put himself on the line in his struggle with Chinese authorities. While China now has strict rules for microblogging platforms such as Twitter, Mr. Ai was for a time able to use it to mobilize followers to engage in whimsical but potentially revolutionary stunts.

“Freedom is a pretty strange thing,” Mr. Ai says. “Once you’ve experienced it, it remains in your heart, and no one can take it away.”

It’s not just the idea of freedom, but the raw, energetic thing itself that surges through Mr. Ai’s work. While Mr. Ai’s optimism and will are wonderful to behold, it appears that the cracks in the system that let him launch a successful international career are being filled. Mr. Ai currently is under a form of house arrest. As one Chinese observer says in the film, “If the government was afraid of someone, it wouldn’t be the government anymore.”

★★★★

TITLE:Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry”

CREDITS: Directed by Alison Klayman

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