The film "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry" (3-1/2 stars) could have been titled "Ai Weiwei: An Artist's Life" because Mr. Ai epitomizes the character, contradictions, loyalties, protestations and motivations that drive many prominent artists.
Mr. Ai is, however, bigger than life -- by nature, by heritage, and particularly by the dice roll of history that placed him in socio-politically turbulent contemporary China.
This exceptional documentary, which opens Friday at the Harris Theater, Downtown, delivers a portrait of the feisty activist who first splashed upon the global stage as co-designer of the lauded 2008 Beijing Olympics Bird's Nest stadium. His celebrity heightened when he later denounced the Olympics as ruling party propaganda that provided a "fake smile for the foreigners."
Mr. Ai knows the power of media and says in the film that he conducts more than 100 interviews annually with the international press, and a similar number with Chinese media.
What makes this 91-minute documentary special is the access first-time director Alison Klayman had to the artist's personal space and daily activity, his cats, dogs and family. She began filming just after his 2008 criticism of the government, and in 2011, when he disappeared at the hands of the police, she became one of the spokespersons that kept his plight before a global audience.
His life is a roller coaster of highs and lows.
Mr. Ai is shown overseeing the 2010 installation of his widely admired "Sunflower Seeds" at The Tate Modern, London, which comprised 100 million hand-made porcelain seeds. Pittsburghers may recognize Tate curator Sheena Wagstaff, who a decade ago was director of exhibitions, collections and education at Pittsburgh's Frick Art & Historical Center in Point Breeze.
He's filmed with friends and crew at the legendary Carnegie Deli in New York, where he lived from 1983-93, when he moved back to China to be with his ailing father. (Archival photographs and footage include images of the young artist in New York.)
Also documented is a 2009 trip to testify at the trial of activist Tan Zuoren in Chengdu, where police arrived at Mr. Ai's hotel room in the night, beat him, and detained him for 12 hours, preventing him from attending the trial. In Munich weeks later to install an exhibition, he complained of ongoing headaches and was sent to a hospital. Doctors found a massive swelling in his brain, caused by the police beating, and operated. Mr. Ai has requested investigations of the police action, not because he expects a satisfactory resolution, but because he feels such events must be questioned and brought to public light.
Most affecting is a segment shot from across the room as Mr. Ai and his mother, Gao Ying, talk privately. Earlier, she'd said that she was proud of her son "because he speaks out for the average citizen," but also that she wishes he could "just be an artist." Away from the interviewer, she confides "Every night I can't sleep. ... I'm worried that mommy won't see you again." He tries to allay her fears by saying if the authorities want to get him, they will, and there's no point to worrying. "Their reason and their logic is not predictable."
The artist is like his father, who "was also opinionated and a romantic," says filmmaker and cinematographer Gu Changwei. Ai Qing was a celebrated poet who was sent to the countryside for re-education during the Cultural Revolution although he had been a loyal Communist party member. Young Weiwei witnessed the elder Mr. Ai being beaten with a gun and having calligraphy ink splattered across his face. "These are experiences I cannot erase," he says.
The portrait is not all rosy. We meet his son, Ai Lao, born in 2009 to film editor Wang Fen. He visits the boy daily and takes obvious delight in him. His wife of 16 years, Lu Qing, continues to support Mr. Ai. A reporter asks him about the relationship and, characteristically straightforward, Mr. Ai says that his wife is not happy with it but is understanding. The reporter waves the indiscretion aside as acceptable, but Mr. Ai corrects him. "I guess it is not desirable, but it happens."
A friend says that Mr. Ai "has a hooligan side so he knows how to deal with other hooligans [like Communist party members]."
A hooligan with a heart of gold and strong sense of justice.
When Chinese authorities told him that the names of schoolchildren who died during the 2008 earthquake that killed an estimated 70,000 people were a "state secret," Mr Ai initiated a project whereby individuals would visit communities to learn them. Authorities were also trying to cover up the cheap "tofu construction" that allowed the schools to collapse.
His "most radical escalation" of his conflict with the authorities was choosing the earthquake, and the lack of transparency surrounding it, as a challenge to Chinese government beliefs, the film asserts. Mr Ai, who typically blogged once or twice a day, couldn't write for a week as reports of the suffering continued: "It is devastating. I am speechless."
He and his volunteers identified 5,212 young earthquake victims. On the one-year anniversary of the quake, in May 2009, he posted the victims' names and birthdates on his blog. Soon after, the authorities shut down the blog, installed surveillance cameras around his compound and stationed people outside to keep watch.
The October 2009 exhibition at Haus der Kunst, Munich, included a memorial installation, "Remembering," that covered the museum's front facade. About 9,000 backpacks spelled out a sentence murmured by a mourning mother -- "She lived happily on this earth for 7 years."
When Mr. Ai took on the earthquake cause, he was already famous, says Hung Huang, a Chinese patriot who blogs, runs China Interactive Media and attended Vassar. Her mother was Mao Zedong's English teacher and his interpreter during the famed Nixon/Kissinger China visit.
Mr. Ai could have easily sold his art at huge prices because at the time the value of contemporary Chinese art was escalating, she says. But something drove him "to actually go ahead and create all that anti-government noise on the Internet. He has thrown away those opportunities."
Near the film end, Mr. Ai is released from his 81-day detention, but bail conditions confine him to Beijing, and stipulate that he may not give interviews nor be active on social media. When he arrives home from confinement, he uncharacteristically refuses to take questions and pushes the large compound door shut upon a group of eager reporters who have waited in the night.
The reason authorities gave for incarcerating him was that they were investigating tax evasion and fined him the equivalent of $2.4 million, a charge many thought to be politically motivated. To retain an appeal option, he had to pay half the amount within a short time.
Options seemed grim, and then support began to flow in from tens of thousands of people, some of whom deposited money into an account for Mr. Ai, some of whom delivered contributions attached to paper airplanes that they sailed over the compound's walls. More than 1 million Chinese yen was raised in the first 24 hours, and money continued to arrive on subsequent days.
The end of this story has yet to be written, but bets are Mr. Ai is unlikely to choose safe seclusion.
Asked to describe himself as an artist, he paused a moment and replied, "I consider myself more of a chess player. My opponent makes a move. I make a move. Now I'm waiting for my opponent to make the next move."
Rated R for some language. Chinese and English with English subtitles.
Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: email@example.com or 412-263-1925.