Modern art long ago stopped being about recreating an image of reality and became about ideas. The key question always seems to be: Is art the thing itself? Or the idea of the thing?
But what if you live in a society where the very ideas you harbor are punishable by imprisonment -- or worse? How much of being an artist becomes about simply having the courage to express your ideas in verbal or physical form?
That's the notion at the heart of Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, a compelling documentary about the Chinese contemporary artist who seems to spend his life on a blade's edge, dancing on a knife that's in the hands of the government of the People's Republic of China. One of the designers of the "Bird's Nest," the stadium that was the centerpiece of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Ai is a seemingly fearless individual whose most prominent art work often involves giving the finger to his own government, sometimes literally.
As Alison Klayman's film shows, he comes by his rebelliousness naturally. His father was a dissident poet under Mao Zedong, sent to reeducation farms to learn the proper attitude. Ai Weiwei lives in a slightly more enlightened time, but the memory of his father's treatment still informs his work and his opinion about his country.
Yet his art isn't about overthrowing the established order as much as showing its hypocrisy and cement-headed attitudes toward new ideas, such as democratic free thought and expression. The film chronicles a couple of his post-Olympic artworks, such as a show in Germany that included a massive, building-size quilt made of red, yellow and blue nylon backpacks.
The backpacks represent the thousands of school children who died in a 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province. They were killed when the government-built school buildings in which they were housed collapsed because of shoddy construction. The government, however, refused to acknowledge the loss of life because of the loss of face it would entail.
The backpacks were a follow-up to one of Ai Weiwei's other projects -- assembling a list of names of all the dead children, something the government refused to do. The government feared embarrassment for sanctioning substandard construction and refused to reveal how many children had died in the earthquake. So Ai Weiwei and a crew of volunteers gradually assembled the most comprehensive list around and posted it on the Internet -- until the government took it down.
This review continues on my website.