A few weeks ago I came across a photograph at the Museum of Modern Art showing an outstretched hand giving the finger to the skyline of Hong Kong. The young lady next to me started giggling. She said, Did you get it?
I wasn't sure. It looked like dissident art of some sort, saying something against Chinese politics. But it seemed so crude and simplistic that I couldn't figure out how it ended up at the MoMA. I looked at the wall caption which mentioned an artist whose name did not ring a bell, Ai Weiei.
I must have been living under a rock for the past decade. After some research I found out that Ai Weiwei was one of the most esteemed, and controversial, artists of this generation. ArtReview placed him at the top of its Power 100 list, and the artist has exhibited at the Tate Modern and other high profile venues.
So last Friday I went to see Alison Klayman's documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry at the IFC Center. This absorbing film featured extensive interviews with Ai and traced his development as a conceptual artist including his years in New York in the 80s.
Apart from the MoMA photograph I haven't seen any of Ai's work in the flesh, but the film provided an overview of his most famous pieces. Regardless of scale, his works have a strong, legible graphic element with overt references to Pop Art. His messages are instantly comprehensible. There isn't much nuance, subtlety or ambiguity here, which totally suits Ai's temperament and objectives.
The documentary's main theme, however, was art as political expression: in this case Ai's dissatisfaction with the state of Chinese bureaucracy and artistic freedom.
The film raised some interesting questions: Is it enough to make "pretty" pictures or decorative pieces? Should art be used towards political ends? Does silence equal complicity? Where do you draw the line between art and propaganda?
The United States has its own legacy of political art as seen in Hide/Seek last year at the Brooklyn Museum and Sharon Hayes currently on view at the Whitney. But Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry takes it to a whole new level.
I would recommend this documentary to all artists regardless of his or her preferred medium or genre. It will make you reassess the power of online media in disseminating your work and communicating ideas that could change lives, as well as history.