Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry successfully tackles a number of important issues regarding art, freedom, and political dissidence. The film documentary explores the work of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei and the complicated, overlapping worlds of politics, art, rebellion, and governmental suppression in modern China. The film is both excellent and enlightening and could very effectively serve to bring about lively classroom discussion on a number of issues. The artist discusses in clear, direct terms, the meaning behind his art, which focuses on such subjects as the death toll of school children due to a particularly devastating earthquake in Beijing, which would have been significantly less had the government not opted for the cheap “tofu” construction of schools in poorer areas—information that the government still vehemently keeps hidden and denies. Throughout the film, the artist constantly clashes with the government, facing imprisonment, fines of up to 2.5 million dollars, and beatings, one of which was so severe as to necessitate emergency brain surgery.
Beyond topics such as art’s use for protest, art’s effectiveness at social change, freedom of expression, and governmental suppression, students will also have to grapple with their conceptions of what can be considered “art”. As a modern political, conceptual artist, some students may bulk at how different Ai Weiwei is from their traditional perception of what an artist is. For instance, Ai Weiwei often uses obscenities in his art, especially favoring “the F word”. The word, itself, is used dozens of times in the movie. This, coupled with a bit of very brief nudity that is occasionally a part of his art, merits that this film might be best suited for the college classroom, although some brave teachers in more progressive high schools may be able to show it, also. This use of harsh language will likely challenge the students’ ideas of what art is and where it belongs—many picture stuffy galleries as being the only places art is displayed. Also, as a conceptual artist, Ai Weiwei’s contribution to the art world lies in the ideas behind his works. Indeed, the artist often conceives of an idea, and then has other individuals create the works of art for him. This will often challenge students to question, grapple with, and widen their definition of art. Finally, Ai Weiwei has a series in which he collects antiques such as Stone Age or Ming Dynasty pottery, and smashes them. The notion of destroying works of antiquity shocks and offends many, but the artist has his reasons beyond pure destruction, noting that we, as humans, conduct this behavior on a daily basis—we destroy one another without thought, and yet, we shudder at the thought of smashed clay.
What will certainly shock the American student the most, however, is certainly not the obscenities, partial nudity, or even the destruction of historic pottery, but, rather, the voyeuristic and invasiveness of the Chinese government. Ai Weiwei and other artists, who are interviewed and discussed in the documentary, are imprisoned, disappear, fined, beaten, and murdered by the government for completing actions that an American takes for granted on a daily basis. Ai Weiwei is no exception and notes, when asked, that he is “very afraid” of his government and what they may do to him at any moment.