He’s been called the most powerful artist in the world.
Awed viewers all across the world for his confronting art. Made headlines for his vocal criticism of the Chinese ruling communist party. Caused protests with his continued persecution by the Chinese government. Ai Weiwei is many things, but in this documentary by The Guardian and Tate, he is a tour guide to the city that sits closest to his heart.
Ai Weiwei was born in Beijing, currently a bustling metropolis of 21 million people. The roads are choked with traffic, and skies towering with skyscrapers. Yet for all its population, no one will claim loyalty and ownership of it. The citizens are an amalgamous grey blob to match the smog-filled skies of Beijing.
The documentary follows Weiwei’s efforts to carve out a space of his own. Located 12km from the city center in the outskirts is Caochangdi, where he has created his studio and place of residence.
It’s a relatively unremarkable village, not much different from the million other variations across China. But with its bright blue gates and his confession that this is “the most important location of his life”, that is enough reason to set it apart.
He talks about the organic nature of Caochangdi – how it has evolved and transformed based on it’s citizens. The migrants who come to Beijing for work, settle work and cannot understand his intention and vision. To the artists who flock there to soak in the vibes and establish their budding careers.
It’s self-growing, a reflection of the migrants and the artistically-skewed movers. They both share one common ambition – the yearning to improve their career but have dissimilar approaches to it. Caochangdi is thus a microcosm of greater China. The two parties acting as an example of people’s fundamental needs clashing with their innate wants. All under the ever watchful eye of the government.
In front of Weiwei’s gate, there’s at least a dozen surveillance cameras. He’s always under watch. But with his subtle voice, he has a way of drawing the people’s attention to it too. And that seems to be the goal with the community he has created.
Even after his political clashes with the government, he doesn’t ever see Beijing as a prison. But he does understand how everyone is prisoner to the state. And that’s why he continues to defend the fight for free speech, not just for his work but for the millions who breathe the same air. He knows the going is tough, but it’s too important to ever give up.
Max Duncan is a video journalist and film-maker based in Beijing. He has produced short films and interactive video independently and for media including the Guardian, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, BBC, Al Jazeera and Reuters, and non-media organisations including Tate. (HT: Guardian Cities, Tate special series)