“I think most people’s lives unfold in chapters,” Wendi Murdoch muses on a bright snowy morning in Utah, where the Chinese-born businesswoman best known for her marriage to—and turbulent divorce from—media mogul Rupert Murdoch is writing a new one for herself: film producer.
Rupert might be newly engaged, but Wendi, 47, is forging ahead. She’s keeping the Murdoch name, she says, which is how she’s credited as a producer on Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang, a striking biographical art documentary selected to open this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Being raked over the coals in the media during her public split from the News Corp founder seems to have toughened Murdoch’s already thick skin. She acknowledges the colorful path her life’s taken with a knowing smile: “Never a dull moment.”
Sky Ladder premiered to warm acclaim, telling the story of one of China’s most celebrated art world darlings with intimate interviews and awe-inspiring scenes of Cai’s explosive award-winning installations. At the film’s premiere, Murdoch stood side by side with Oscar-winning director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland), Oscar-winning fellow producer Fisher Stevens, and the artist himself, celebrating the two-year project she spearheaded a dozen years after first meeting Cai.
Both were Chinese expats living in SoHo at the time. Cai had long moved his family away from his hometown of Quanzhou, although he carried the fireworks-manufacturing region’s spirit with him by weaving it into his art. It wasn’t until Murdoch and her now ex-husband had daughters Grace, born in 2001, and Chloe, born in 2003, that she got to know the Cais when their children shared a classroom.
“I met him before I had children,” explains Murdoch. “His younger daughter who’s in the movie and my daughter are similar in age, so we go to each other’s birthday parties, we play together, and we travel together.”
Murdoch, a longtime art collector who’s also instrumental in the start-up ARTSY and is known for her networking prowess, had already produced one film, the anemic 2001 period drama Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. To get the Cai documentary in motion, she and producer Hugo Shong secured financing through Chinese investors, then tapped a few Oscar-caliber contacts in actor Stevens, who produced the anti-whaling doc The Cove, and Foxcatcher director Bennett Miller, who exec-produced. They went to Macdonald to direct and wooed him over lunch at Murdoch’s New York City home.
“I was hoping people who don’t know [Cai’s] work or don’t know China can know it through this film, like a window to China and Chinese culture to the world,” she says of Cai, whose politically explosive works have taken him from the Great Wall (Project to Extend the Great Wall of China by 10,000 Meters: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 10) to MOCA (Sky Ladder), MOMA (Transient Rainbow), the Guggenheim (I Want To Believe, Inopportune), the Venice Biennale, and beyond.
“Through his career in the last 20 or 30 years, they can also see how contemporary China has changed,” says Murdoch. “Now we have more and more freedom. Every big city, like Beijing, has seven, eight, nine art districts, and artists can do anything they want—with a lot of freedom, actually.”
Part of the reason Murdoch & Co. tapped a Western director to tell Cai’s story was to widen the film’s reach internationally, particularly at a crucial time in U.S.-China relations. She says she’s been following presidential candidate Donald Trump’s well-publicized GOP debates but is quick to downplay the potential damage caused by his economic vilification of China.
“When people are running for office, sometimes they say things—or sometimes the press takes it out of context—so it’s still early to see what happens,” she says. “I think whoever the U.S. president is will have to work with China. People in both countries love the exchange, and hopefully it’s as important a relationship for the U.S. as for China.”
Sky Ladder, at least, offers the world a peek into the life of an artist indelibly shaped by contemporary China and its vast complexities. It traces Cai’s work in parallel to the enormous sociopolitical transformation China underwent in the last half-century, from his relationship with his calligraphist father, an intellectual devalued and demoralized by Mao’s Cultural Revolution, to the post-success struggles Cai faced more recently working under the constraints of the controlling Chinese government.
He allows the cameras to peel back the curtain on his private family life including his wife, who worries over his costly and repeated attempts to construct a fiery ladder to the heavens—a feat he finally achieved last year, not for the art world, but in a modest Chinese fishing village in front of a small crowd of locals with little global fanfare.
“He told me that as he’s getting older he’s realized how much influence his father has,” Murdoch shares. “That’s also very sad for him because he became so successful, but couldn’t share it with his father, who became sick for the past five or six years. His grandmother, who he loved very much, told him when he was a little child he would one day do big things. He always thought that was so important. ‘Why does she think I’m so good? I must live up to this.’”
Sky Ladder also challenges its subject as it celebrates his evolution. When Communist leaders neutered Cai’s plans to layer provocative environmental messaging into his APEC Gala display, his frustrations were captured in the film—but he went through with the show anyway, much to the chagrin of even those who support him.
At the film’s Sundance premiere, a woman in the audience challenged Cai and director MacDonald to explain the anti-Maoist streak that runs through Sky Ladder—a question Cai politely skirted, through a translator.
Murdoch says she and MacDonald brought up the same topic during their time with Cai. “I think Cai’s journey affected his art, definitely. I asked him this question, and Kevin asked him this question while filming him for two years. He says his art has political elements in it, but he made the choice as an artist to focus on art, not politics.”
“He had all these big shows at the Guggenheim, the Met, MOMA—but he had no art dealer,” she adds. “He’ll be busy for the next maybe five years, is doing a big museum show in March in Qatar, the next year in Russia, and tonight he’s leaving for New York to do a museum show in Spain. People just come to him, no dealers. And he’s not very commercial. He lives a very simple life, doesn’t have much luxury. He’s always on the go traveling. If anyone wants to buy his art, they don’t know where to find him and if somebody asks me to ask him, he says it’s not for sale!”
Nevertheless, the film suggests that, like many successful artists, Cai lost some of the fearless edge of his youth when bigger checks and international fame came calling. How can a transgressive artist allow himself to keep pushing the envelope when it’s stuffed with millions of dollars in funding?
Murdoch compares Cai’s artistic quandary to the problems of successful businessmen and women. “I think a lot of people even in business, when they become successful, then the next move comes, and they wonder what will happen to them,” she offers. “But any successful people have failed attempts. Steven Spielberg [who appears briefly in the film] asks Cai, ‘How many takes?’ One. But many takes failed.”
Murdoch, perhaps, can relate. She’s bouncing back from a rough few years in the gossip rags by pouring her energies into her art, tech, film, and fashion interests.
“My children are most important,” she says. “I make sure they go to school and make sure they have a good education and good values. I’m happy to be a businesswoman and a film producer. People send me film projects, and there are more and more opportunities in U.S-China co-productions. I feel very lucky that it feels like the right timing.”
At Sundance a week after Rupert’s surprise engagement to Jerry Hall, Murdoch repeatedly declines to answer any personal questions but muses on her life in the public eye. “I think being in the media is sometimes good, sometimes bad, and sometimes in between,” she ventures.
“I learned not to worry about that. If it’s something bad, you can’t blame people. You learn, and you move on. I want to focus on the future and positive things. I can’t worry about what people say about me. You have no control. The only thing I can do is what I have control over myself, and to spend my time in the most positive way.”
She can still laugh over the infamous 2011 “pie” incident, in which she earned international respect for defending her then-husband from pie-wielding comedian Jonathan May-Bowles with a lightning-fast right hook.
“Chinese people felt really proud! I got a lot of media requests for interviews, they wanted to give me an award in China, everything,” she smiles.
She repeats a mantra of moving forward into the future by doing, not complaining. “Life’s always challenging as a third daughter in China, where there was a one-child policy,” she says. “But I also had a lot of opportunities. I was very lucky in life. I had a scholarship to go to Yale, the best working experience. I consider myself very lucky and very grateful to have this interesting life. How many girls in China had these opportunities?”