Despite rainy weather, the Penn community turned out in numbers on Monday evening for a viewing of Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, a 2012 documentary film about China's most famous contemporary artist and active critic. A discussion led by Penn Professor Guobin Yang followed the movie.
Ai Weiwei is known all over the world for bringing the most pressing social issues, many that the Chinese government would rather keep under wraps, to the forefront of international dialogue. From the abuse of basic human rights and speech to the destruction of traditional hutong houses in Beijing (many of which are older than the United States), Ai Weiwei's protest seems to know few limits.
After a quick introduction of the artist, the film focused on Ai Weiwei's condemnation of the August 2008 Beijing Olympics. He dubbed the events a "fake smile" and was outraged at the inaction and lack of transparency on behalf of the Chinese government in the aftermath of the earthquake that struck Sichuan Province in central China in May of 2008. China was reeling in wake of the disaster, but the government managed to brush some of the most disturbing questions under the rug, left unanswered to this day. For instance, thousands of schools collapsed in the earthquake. Termed tofu-dregs schoolhouses or豆腐渣校舍dòufuzhā xiàoshè to underscore shoddy construction practices, more than 7000 school rooms collapsed and caused the deaths of possibly thousands more students. But the results of a state investigation were never released. Although the state-sponsored news agency, Xinhua, estimated that more than 5000 students died and more than 500 were left permanently disabled,without an investigation there was no way to hold anyone accountable for the human consequences of the disaster. One of Ai Weiwei's main projects has been to raise awareness about the tragedy and elicit greater transparency on the part of the government. What do the people deserve to know?
Ai Weiwei described himself as a chess player - he watches the government make a move and then he calculates and responds. Sometimes, however, his actions are met with brutality, such as in August, 2009, when he attempted to testify in support of Tan Zuoren, another advocate for increased transparency. A police attack left him with severe cerebral hemorrhaging and, on the brink of death, he was detained in a hotel and unable to testify. When asked why he remains fearless, he replied that he is not fearless, but rather that he understands the fears of others and the risks he faces. If he does not act, who will?
The film also touched on several of his art installations. It covered the opening of So Sorry, in Haus der Kunst, Münich in 2009, a display composed of 9000 colorful backpacks. The display is symbolic of the thousands of school children who died in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Another sequence included his shocking and irreverent destruction of Neolithic vases from the Han Dynasty and other ceramic pieces - either by violently smashing them or by painting over them, sometimes painting them with recognizable logos like that of Coca Cola.
Ai Weiwei's works are viewed very differently in China than they are by the rest of the world, and they are almost always seen as political in China. How can any artwork commenting on any facet of Chinese society not be political? His mother spoke briefly in the film, saying that he does what others cannot - he is able to speak for the common people. The film gave a candid view into Ai Weiwei's day-to-day activities and while personal and funny at times, also showed the brutality and narrow-mindedness that critics of the Chinese government often face.
Ai Weiwei is a Chinese photographer, sculptor and filmmaker who is internationally known for his provocative and often political artwork. This event was organized by alpha Kappa Delta Phi and was sponsored by the Center for the Study of Contemporary China (CSCC) at the University of Pennsylvania. For more information about upcoming CSCC events, please visit our website.