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Laramie Movie Scope:
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

An artist protecting freedom of expression

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by Patrick Ivers, Film Critic
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(2012, English and Mandarin) No one person can change the world or a nation, but if no one speaks out, no one will be free. The artistic consultant for the design and construction of the National Stadium in Beijing, often referred to as the Bird's Nest, built for the 2008 Summer Olympics, boycotted the opening ceremonies and Games as a protest against the Communist Chinese government's "illiberal attitude" toward its people.

Dissident artist and social activist Ai Weiwei - who in recent years has been under surveillance, detained for 81 days, and fined - insists that an artist has the responsibility to protect freedom of expression.

At the beginning of director, writer, cinematographer Alison Klayman's documentary, Ai Weiwei explains about his artworks: "Actually, I have very little involvement in the production of my works. I mainly make the decisions. I prefer to have other people implement my ideas. Or maybe I just have an idea, and someone else can use it." An assistant, comparing himself to an assassin who carries out orders to kill, says: "I'm just his hands."

Of Weiwei's aggressively confrontational, controversial gestures (e.g., a middle finger raised in a photo of Tiananmen Square, painting "Coca-Cola" on a Neolithic vase and smashing a piece of the valuable pottery), Ethan Cohen, owner of a New York City gallery of fine arts, remarks: "He wants to slap you in the face."

Ai Weiwei came to prominence after the May 2008 earthquake, which killed more than 70,000 people in Sichuan Province because of the "tofu" construction of many buildings, including the collapse of a school in Beichuan. The artist's radical anti-government escalation began with his collecting the names of nearly 5,000 children who died and blogging about the government's complicity and attempts to cover up the tragedy.

When his blog was shut down, Weiwei went to Twitter. "If you don't act," he explains, "the dangers become stronger." Returning to Sichuan in 2009 to testify on behalf of Tan Zuoren, an environmentalist and volunteer in the project of exposing the names, charged with "inciting subversion of state power," Ai Weiwei was prevented from appearing by police officers, one of whom struck him in the head.

The injury later resulted in Ai Weiwei's requiring brain surgery while he was setting up his So Sorry exhibition in Munich, which included a huge display of backpacks to remember the children.

For being intellectuals, his father, Ai Qing, a poet of the revolution, and mother were sent to a re-education camp in 1957 for 19 years. Ai Weiwei was among the first Chinese to receive permission to study abroad, going to New York City in 1983, learning about freedom, democracy, protest, and transparency (from the Iran-contra hearings); but after Tiananmen Square in 1989, he returned to China in 1993 where he began publishing underground books to inspire a discussion of ideas among artists. A group of radicals in 2000 put on the FUCK OFF art exhibit.

Asked if the changes occurring in China aren't evidence of a greatly improved society, including the allowances granted to him personally, Ai Weiwei says they aren't good enough. In 2011 when his studio was demolished by order of the government, Ai Weiwei and his fans recorded the event. While under house arrest, Ai Weiwei received donations from tens of thousands of Chinese to pay his fine. He refuses to be silent. Someone must speak out.

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Copyright © 2012 Patrick Ivers. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Patrick Ivers can be reached via e-mail at nora's email address at juno. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

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