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Q&A March, 30 2011

Curated Q&A | Alison Klayman, Director of “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry”

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is the first feature-length film about internationally renowned Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. With ambitious installations, including the much discussed Sunflower Seeds at Tate Modern, Weiwei’s star in the art world is equaled only by his stature as a political activist. Alison Klayman’s film examines the complexity of Weiwei as an artist and social activist, detailing preparation for major exhibitions as well as clashes with Chinese government.

With the official launch of Never Sorry coming by way of Frontline today, I am happy to begin sharing an exclusive conversation with Klayman here on Curated.

The Q&A will roll in three parts. Head to the jump for part one.

CR: How’d you start working with Ai Weiwei?

AK: He was putting together his New York photographs in 2008. A friend of mine was with the gallery that essentially acted as his archives. They went through all the negatives and figured out what year they were from… what roll they were from. He’d sometimes put a camera down and pick it up three years later, so it was all quite like a detective process. By the end of that, my friend was like, “maybe we can do a video to run in the gallery if you want to come by.” So, I just started hanging out and filming, going through the pictures and the stories which were just kind of like ephemera… he’d be telling us about something from New Year’s 1987, and my friend would take notes and go back to see if it really happened.

I didn’t know much about Weiwei at the the time, but he let us hang out with him every morning and I asked him standard, stupid questions like, “why do you get away with the things you do?” It’s funny to look back at those tapes because I’m asking him why his blog doesn’t get shut down or why he doesn’t get in more trouble, and he’s saying “I don’t know, maybe I’ll get shut down tomorrow.” It’s funny to look back on those tapes, because about 5 months later his blog did get shut down.

The bulk of the footage for Never Sorry doesn’t start at that point, but it is really good to have that perspective to know that everything wasn’t inevitable and people really don’t know what’s going to happen to them – even someone like Weiwei, who seems like a master of their own world and own pr.

CR: Does he do a good job of documenting his own activity?

AK: Yeah, he does. The New York photographs are pretty good evidence of that. When he was here from 1983 to 1993, he took over 10,000 photographs. Whenever I ask him about documentation he always says it is about learning because you don’t always understand the present as it is happening. But, I’m not sure how much time he spends looking back.

I think he’s got half an eye on the now, and half on thinking about the future and thinking about something new. He really gets contemporary life and what’s coming ahead, he’s really got a knack for that. He has way too much video footage and documentation that he can’t spend time with. But, perhaps just knowing that it is there, that it could be looked at, is important.

On that note, at the Tate installation he turned to me and said, “you know, I don’t think I recorded enough of my stuff. I think I started recording my art activity too late.”

CR: Though the process of that installation is quite well documented.

AK: I think he thought from the beginning that was important. He was making the piece well before it became the Tate commission. Originally, he was thinking about doing something with bamboo – but he saw what was going on on the roof of the MET, I was there mid-March last year with Weiwei. He said, “hmmm, this is a lot like what we’re thinking about.”

CR: Thinking about something like the Bird’s Nest, and Weiwei’s involvement there, perhaps you could talk a little about the breadth of his artistic activity and, perhaps, how cognizant he is of everything happening in the art world at large.

AK: Lot’s of people  have commented that he doesn’t just pursue one thing. Many chinese contemporary artist’s find something and repeat it. Weiwei always has a lot of things going on at once. Something that is interesting, is that he really manages his time in house, he’s kind of very hands on with everything. His main concern with an exhibition or an architecture project is that he gets free reign to do what he desires. There have been projects, dream commissions, which had too many constraints and he walked away.

In actual practice and activity, picture a guy sitting at his computer. That’s like resting position for Weiwei. His whole studio and home is like one compound. He doesn’t work from a laptop. He’ll tweet off his phone if he is out the house, but generally online time is spent at his desk. He sits among all his volunteers and assistants. People come in and tell him that there are this many media requests or about how a piece of art is being shipped from, say, Switzerland. He probably does 3-4 hours a day with an interviewer, whether it is someone writing a catalogue for an upcoming show or a reporter from the New York Times. He says yes to a lot of people. He’ll talk about digital activism or politics with someone for an hour, and then give them a few sunflower seeds.

CR: Does he carry seeds in his pockets?

AK: He doesn’t carry them in his pockets. At various points he has them in mason jars or boxes. Now, I think the gifts have become something else, because the seeds are sort of famous. Before it was a gift as someone left the house, along with a copies of his documentary. Now everyone wants seeds, and I don’t know if he’s offering something different.

And, just to note something about production – most of Weiwei’s works are produced in factories by skilled workers that are expert in a given material. He’ll spend a lot of time figuring out what factory is the correct factory, and thinking about if he likes the people. So, regularly people will be coming in with samples. He’s somehow an expert in a lot of things. Even for the backpacks in Munich, he figured out which backpack factory to contract. Sometimes the factory is in Beijing. Sometimes elsewhere – as in the case of the large bronzes that will be here in New York. If he can get someone else to check on the quality, he’ll save himself the trip.

For more on the film, and to contribute to post production, please visit Klayman’s Kickstarter Campaign page.

The second portion of my chat with Klayman will run next week.

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