Big Brother Watching Me: Citizen Ai Weiwei, BBC Four | TV reviews, news & interviews
Big Brother Watching Me: Citizen Ai Weiwei, BBC Four
The latest bulletin from the Chinese artist’s frontline
For a film that opened with Ai Weiwei’s statement, “Without freedom of speech, there is no modern world, just a barbaric one,” there was an irony in the fact that Andreas Johnsen’s Big Brother Watching Me… started practically without words. When the artist was freed in June 2011 following 80 days in prison, one of the conditions of his release was that he would not talk to journalists. For a while we wondered if this Storyville film might be purely observational, without an utterance from its central character.
However it happened exactly – presumably the concept of documentary was eventually interpreted as different from direct commentary – permission came through for the artist to speak, and soon he was as eloquent as ever. The ironies continued aplenty: “No filming today,” he told other foreign correspondents (we came away with some mixed feelings of both journalists and gallerists), while manifestly being filmed for this project. He himself installed webcams in his home to broadcast details of his everyday life to the world, to the annoyance of his monitors from National Security, but countered that it was to assist them with maintaining their 24-hour surveillance. Before long the relationship between guards and guarded was completely inverted: after one meeting with police it was Ai who came away with evidence (an ashtray containing their cigarette butts, later presented to a gallery as an artwork), before he proceeded to trail them in his car.
The stakes in this “game” – definitely not the right word for it – were high, however. Ai was frequently seem holding his head in his hands, as if seeking a moment of respite (not least from Johnsen’s camera?) to recover from those 80 days of prison, in which he was kept in a small cell in the permanent presence of two guards, and interrogated daily. (We saw that experience being transformed into art, in the form of his project S.A.C.R.E.D., six metal containers depicting different scenes from Ai's detention in less than life-size: the artist depicted in bed, part of the letter “E”, for Entropy (sleep), in the series, pictured above right). Ai’s mother, speaking of how the family had always lived “on the tip of a wave”, put it in a more chilling perspective: “If this was 1957 they would have killed you already.”
Johnsen asked Ai towards the end whether he was “pushing the limit”, almost provoking further reaction from the authorities. “You underestimate me,” the artist replied, insisting that he was just exercising his constitutional rights. But that can be a fragile plank of defence: comparisons with the Pussy Riot case in Russia came to mind, where highly articulate artists came up against a wider society in which their artistic standards weren’t understood. Although the better-known charge brought against Ai was tax evasion, the subsidiary accusation, of spreading pornography on the internet, was no less revealing: one work we saw, “One Tiger, Eight Breasts”, a nude photograph of Ai with four women, may be standard stuff for the international gallery scene, but nevertheless risks falling under other statutes locally.
'One day it will collapse completely,' Ai said about China’s controlling state system
Big Brother Watching Me… was more about the politics than the art, and Ai’s status as a figure stretching the boundaries of his society. Clearly he has a real popular following in some quarters, as we saw when people made contributions to his appeal fund to challenge the tax evasion charges, many throwing banknotes over the wall of his compound like gliders. What of the future? “One day it will collapse completely,” Ai said about China’s controlling state system, but he wasn’t hazarding a guess as to when exactly. Johnsen played his film out to Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good”, with its refrain of “new day, new dawn, new life”, while Ai took a purging shower, somehow suggesting that the Danish director felt this new wave might be coming along sooner rather than later.
That may be optimistic. This is the third documentary on Ai that we’ve had on British television – Johnsen’s accomplished work covered some of the same ground as Alison Klayman’s full-length film from last year, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, while he was the subject of an Imagine! profile back in 2010. It’s a fair guess that "Citizen Ai Weiwei" will be returning again to the ring before too long, almost certainly still from the opposition corner.
Subscribe to theartsdesk.com
Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 7,000 pieces, we're asking for £2.95 per month or £25 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.
To take an annual subscription now simply click here.
And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?
Engaging series about portraiture in action captures subjects at a crossroads
Nick Read's long-stretch documentary on remote Russian prison life
Simon Schama campaigns and entertains, but does he explain?
ITV's historical drama is long on intrigue but short on action
Medical drama could have felt tiredly formulaic, but there's freshness in the well-worn tropes
Opening episode of Lord Sugar's business search is a corker
Batman origin story makes a promising start
A history of the Soviet space programme, and the story of one of its more unlikely participants
Maybe the post-Brody 'Homeland' might succeed after all
More tasty treats from the nicest contestants on television (this review contains spoilers)
A cult classic from the golden age of British TV drama
The universe, human life, everything: Brian Cox begins his biggest project yet