The Guggenheim Museum has come under the recent controversy of banning three works from the exhibit, “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World” for being too provocative in the use of animals. Ai Weiwei, however, argued against the museum’s decision to remove the works, stating, “When an art institution cannot exercise its right for freedom of speech, that is tragic for a modern society,” in an interview by The New York Times. In another interview with the Los Angeles Times, he also commented, “As an artist or a defender of human rights, I am highly conscious of the respect we should show to other lives and of the need to protect their rights. However, when anyone uses a moral high ground to judge an art exhibition and to demand the withdrawal of contents that may or may not violate those rights, it presents a potential danger of violating the freedom of speech.”
October is a big month for Ai Weiwei, as two of his films, “Human Flow,” which documents the plight of millions of refugees in the modern refugee crisis across 40 refugee camps, and “Turn It On: China On Film, 2000–2017,” which depicts contemporary China, are both scheduled to be released on October 13th.
I first discovered Ai Weiwei in my art history class, where we studied his 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds, which, once collectively observed, lose their individual state of being, a metaphor for the loss of individual identity under communism. Over the summer, as I browsed through a number of Netflix documentaries, I came across “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” a title that stuck to me. It is one thing to be apologetic, but for one to be never sorry, never regretful, was a big message.
The 1 hour, 30 minute long documentary begins at Ai Weiwei’s home studio in Beijing, with Ai observing his cats. He then says, “We have a lot of dogs and cats. Out of the 40 cats, one knows how to open doors. Where did this intelligence come from?” Ai is the type of artist who does just that — he opens doors. So when he takes a picture with his middle finger in front of Tiananmen and drops a Neolithic pot, he speaks loud and clear for his dissidence against the political institution of Communist China.
“If we don’t push, there’s nothing happening,” Ai says as he shows us his past work that was published on a magazine.
Ai’s activism stems from his commentary on several occasions of controversies, one being the Beijing Olympics, where the construction of the Bird Nest forced the removal of local citizens from their homes, as well as the Sichuan Earthquake, an event that killed more than 70,000 people, most of the victims being students as a result of the government’s poor planning in the construction of public schools.
On a brief interlude, “Never Sorry” traces the history of Ai Weiwei’s upbringings, his father, Ai Qing, a famous poet and a major target accused of being a rightist during the Cultural Revolution. Ai recalls the painful memories as his family was exiled to farm labor. Each work of Ai seems to take his personal pain and transform it into a larger release from the political suppression of expression.
Meanwhile, the documentary also captures how Ai’s constant conflict with the police has become the foundation of his dissidence against the Chinese government’s use of censorship. He uses Twitter as a platform for what he wants to say, frequently documenting his confrontation with the police as he did back in 2009, when the police attacked him for his investigation of the Sichuan earthquake, leaving him with several blows to the head.
“Never Sorry” displays the changing atmosphere of China’s artistic movement, one that can also be seen by the “Art and China after 1898: Theater of the World” exhibit, which “presents work by 71 key artists and groups active across China and worldwide whose critical provocations aim to forge reality free from ideology, to establish the individual apart from the collective, and to define contemporary Chinese experience in universal terms,” as explained by the Guggenheim.
It is clear that Ai Weiwei has become a key leader of an artistic and political movement in China, one that speaks for the universal right to the freedom of expression. After watching the documentary, you cannot leave without forgetting the three things he demands from the political system: transparency, justice, and the right to fight against what is wrong.