Portrait of the Artist as a Righteous Dissident

Filmmaker Alison Klayman discusses her new doc, 'Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry'

Portrait of the Artist as a Righteous Dissident

Try though it might, the government of the People's Republic of China just can't seem to get Beijing-based conceptual artist/blogger/filmmaker/dissident-provocateur Ai Weiwei to Shut. The. Fuck. Up, already.

The epithet is entirely warranted: A thorn in his government's side that has threatened to metastasize into a highly viral, Internet-exacerbated wound, Ai Weiwei has, among other things, taken it upon himself to document the actual children's death toll following the 2008 Sichuan earthquake – his figure turned out to be orders of magnitude greater than the "official" state death toll – while also managing to create artworks of stunning cultural and emotional significance on a daily basis. The Beijing National Stadium created for the 2008 Beijing Olympics (aka the Bird's Nest)? He designed it. Then he turned around and denounced it as a symbol of overreaching State control.

Despite constant police harassment and round-the-clock surveillance – and a near-fatal beating – in his native China, Ai Weiwei has been able to fly out of the country to attend the opening of his astonishing exhibition "So Sorry" at Munich's Haus der Kunst in 2009, all the while tweeting and blogging. Up until April of 2011, that is, when Chinese police arrested him on various Orwellian charges and detained him until June, after which he was more or less muzzled from speaking openly about his situation online. Since then, his Beijing studio has been demolished by the State. Artist: 1, State: 1 (with plenty of egregious fouls).

We spoke to Alison Klayman about her lively and important new documentary, the power of art over State (and vice versa), and why Americans should pay close attention to Ai Weiwei's Sisyphean struggles.

Austin Chronicle: You had complete access to Ai Weiwei over the period of a couple of years. How on earth did you manage that, in the PRC, no less?

Alison Klayman: I went to China in 2006, and in 2008 my roommate at the time was curating an exhibition of his photographs. They were photos from the 1980s, when Ai Weiwei was living in New York City, so it was a really accessible way for me to be introduced to his work. Not long after that, the gallery offered me a chance to make a short video of Ai Weiwei to play during the exhibition, and the next thing you know, there I am following Ai Weiwei around with my camera. That's really how our relationship began.

AC: In light of the ever-present surveillance and harassment of Ai Weiwei, did you yourself ever feel threatened or endangered while filming the artist?

AK: I was always vigilant for signs of whether the authorities knew about my project or whether they cared about it. The reality, however, was that [Ai Weiwei and I] were taking different risks. Ai Weiwei and the people who work for him were putting themselves in more potentially dangerous situations than I, as a foreign journalist, would be in. I wouldn't say I was ever in fear for my safety.

AC: One of the great, subversive things about Ai Weiwei is his masterful use of the Internet to circumvent the "official" state story with regard to his art and his life. Never Sorry also strikes me as a cautionary tale for the rest of us, since, obviously, the surveillance state has arrived here in the West without causing much of a hue and cry from the citizenry ...

AK: Absolutely! The reason the film resonated as it does and is so vital at this moment in time is not just because it helps people get a somewhat more clear-eyed vision of China, but also because it shows a concerned, committed, and courageous citizen pushing to uphold all of these values that, frankly, are under threat all around the world, not just in China.

If I was making a movie about someone doing this sort of work in the U.S. – you know, sort of holding the government to task if not up to outright ridicule – I think the U.S. government is definitely something you don't want to tangle with. There's a lot of things that we, as citizens of the U.S., need to remind ourselves of. The message of the movie isn't, "Aren't you glad you live in America where everything's fine and dandy." The message is that, you know, sometimes you have to take risks in order to do what's important.

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry opens in Austin Friday, Aug. 10.

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