Jodorowsky’s Dance of Reality
August 12, 2012
Film Challenge 2011: Revolutions in Progress: We Found a Time Machine
August 15, 2012

Ai Weiwei Never Sorry: Exposure and Concealment

By Diamuid Hester
The release of Alison Klayman‘s new documentary on the dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei offers an opportunity to reflect upon forms and topographies of political resistance.
Klayman’s film focuses rarely upon Ai’s artworks themselves (though his participation in the 2009 “So Sorry” Munich show and Tate Modern’s 2010 “Sunflower Seeds” exhibit bookend the filmmaker’s digressions); instead, Never Sorry takes as its subject the principal form of dissent mobilised by Ai against the wrongs of the Chinese government, insisting upon the necessity of exposure to the political resistance he envisages. Throughout the work, we witness Ai’s attempts to render visible the obscure machinery of the Chinese government and its accompanying regime of shadowy subjugation; to expose its injustices. Transparency, it seems, is what his art aims for: one of his documentaries attempts to find and name schoolchildren killed in the Sichuan earthquake, against the government’s attempts at a coverup. Another provides an unprecedented personal account of the brutality of the Chinese authorities – portraying Ai’s beating at the hands of the police, his subsequent brain hemmorage and recent, quixotic attempts to bring the crime to the attention of the Chinese authorities. This preoccupation with exposure and transparency applies equally to Ai’s own life as to the activities of the Chinese government he wishes to unveil. He speaks at length about his blog which he updates daily (before it’s shut down); twitter then takes its place as the means by which Ai ceaselessly unfolds his personal, artistic and public life; we are told that he does over 100 interviews annually and, in the year the doc was made, took part in 10-15 documentaries. The impression gleaned from both of these aspects is the absolute significance to Ai of honesty, visibility and exposure: in a country governed by Kafkaesque forces whose power is sustained in large part by the obscurity maintained around its bureaucratic apparatuses, clarity and transparency are radical and revolutionary virtues.
It seemed pretty obvious to me as I watched Never Sorry that this form of resistance, though entirely appropriate to a Chinese context (for further evidence of the covert functioning of Chinese governmental control see Ai’s “disappearance” for 81 days in 2011), nonetheless, is one which is entirely incapable of undermining, subverting or seriously questioning the systems of domination and control which currently reign in the British Isles. Here, the oppressive regimes through which one’s life circulates are not only not threatened by transparency and exposure but rather thrive on it and demand it of we, its subjects. Witness, for example, the unending very public enquiries and widely reported tribunals which intimate and evidence widespread culpability and corruption of government and its constabulary yet which ultimately alter nada (e.g. Moriarty Tribunal, Mahon Tribunal; Leveson Inquiry, Ian Tomlinson investigation). Absolute disclosure of personal information to public authorities, meanwhile, is now not only prerequisite but the only means by which one might be considered innocent before proven otherwise.
This leads us to wonder, well, what forms might be better calibrated to counteract the regimes of domination we experience? If transparency and honesty of purpose have been absorbed and repurposed by the status quo, might the covert, the hidden, and the secret instead, offer an alternative mode of resistance? Furthermore, and more pertinent to the concerns of One+One: Filmmakers Journal, if exposure and revelation are no longer forms of liberation but are instead complicit in our subordination what, then, is the place of cinema whose very matter is one of exposing (film)? How might film, in other words, work against its material conditions – and conceal rather than expose?