Famed artist and activist Ai Weiwei was profiled in an acclaimed documentary, “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” which followed him as he documented the names of children killed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. The film, which has been honored at Sundance and made the Oscar shortlist, will be broadcast on PBS’ Independent Lens tonight in the U.S. (Check listings here). Ahead of the televised screening, the New York Times talks to Ai about his continued activism and how it intersects with his artwork:
Q. The movie shows you approaching state security surveillance agents assigned to tail you and trying to talk with them. Why do that?
A. I always think we have nothing to hide, so I want them to know that. Normally people, when they are being followed, are being intimidated or they are scared. So I always say: “If you are looking for me, we can sit down to talk. You can even come to my office, I’ll just give you a table. You’ll see whoever I see, and if I travel, I will name you as my assistant, so whoever I meet, you will also meet. So tell your boss that this is an opportunity to get a close look at this very dangerous guy named as a subversive of state power.”
Q. Here in the West confrontations like that, just like everything else you do, are seen as a type of performance art. Is this an accurate assessment?
A. I wouldn’t say it’s a form of performance art. It is expression, but not one designed for a show. It’s dangerous, it’s very frustrating, and it’s real life. It’s a way to survive, and it’s a way to announce yourself to those people. Because you don’t want them to look at you as scared. Most people would just give up, and that makes the power unshakably strong. I’m trying to tell the workers or the young people you can insist on your own rights.
Q. So at this juncture do you consider yourself to be primarily an artist or a political activist?
A. I’m not very conscious of or think about either position. I lead my life, which is quite dense, with all kinds of political and social concerns and a lot of so-called cultural or art activities. They integrate with each other, that’s always kind of necessary for me. It’s like when you walk, you breathe, but you’re not necessarily concerned about breathing. But when you walk under difficult conditions, like climbing a mountain, then you realize you have to catch your breath. So my activities are more or less like that.
Watch a trailer of the documentary: