The United Kingdom has no shortage of conceptual artists specialising in attention-grabbing, confrontational or challenging works that claim to pass comment on modern society, but it’s difficult to imagine what Damien Hirst or The Chapman Brothers would have to unveil in order to match the stakes raised by the fearless Ai Weiwei, whose refusal to toe the famously repressive Chinese government’s hardline led to his mysterious, but thankfully temporary, disappearance for ten weeks last year. Ai is the subject of Alison Klayman’s excellent new documentary Never Sorry, which shows us something of the artist’s working methods (he comes up with the ideas and then gets a team of underlings to assemble them. One of them when interviewed likens himself to an assassin: “He tells me who to kill, and I kill them. It’s not my place to ask him why”) and his gradual alienation from Beijing’s art establishment, the turning point of which is his disowning of the work he did for the 2008 Olympics after both native Chinese and migrants were forced to leave sections of the city to make way for the Games’ infrastructure. Ai subsequently got under the skin of the authorities via such seemingly innocuous and well-intentioned acts as trying to definitively identify the victims of the Sichuan earthquake, information deemed by the state as classified, and daring to turn up to testify at the show trial of an activist trying to find out exactly how shoddy the government-built school buildings in the quake zone were. Ai never got to the trial, due to the police detaining him in his hotel room the night before. This incident provides a throughline for the film, as Ai seeks to get formal acknowledgement from the state for the head injury he suffered at the hands of an officer.
Ai comes over as a canny operator, fully aware of the risks he’s taking but safe in the knowledge that his prolific blogging and videoing and seemingly constant use of Twitter will ensure that his activities will be fully documented and instantly broadcast to the world. He’s a cult figure with an adoring fan-base and you sense that the powers-that-be haven’t really worked out how to handle him – certainly, almost every authority figure we see him encounter seems to treat him with respect and courtesy, his hotel assailant being a notable exception. His work has come to fully reflect his struggle, with many of his recent video pieces being blatantly provocative towards his motherland, but as he says “if you don’t push, you get nothing”. At time of writing, Ai is free and still tweeting, though the scenes in this film showing him immediately after his release issuing bland, if apologetic, “no comment”-style statements do make you worry that he may finally have been tamed. If so, it would be a tragedy – the campaign for freedom and transparency in China badly needs champions this brave, smart and articulate.