A look at Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei's terrible new music video.
- By Jon Campbell<p> Jonathan Campbell is the author of Red Rock: The Long Strange March of Chinese Rock & Roll. </p>
When dissident artist, provocateur, and perennial pain in China’s ass Ai Weiwei announced in March that he would be unleashing a heavy-metal record on the world, there was a substantial amount of buzz, much of it focused on the aural bird-flip the record would surely represent.
There have been some red flags, however: for starters, Ai admitting his lack of musical background or ability. After his 81-day detention in the spring of 2011 he said he realized that he "had never really listened to music or sung." Then his "Gangnam Style" parody video — which was basically just 4 minutes and 15 seconds of a bunch of people dancing to the South Korean pop sensation. In March, he cited Elton John — whom he had met backstage before the Rocket Man’s Beijing concert — as an inspiration for his record, though he promised it would be more eclectic. "Some [songs] are like heavy metal, some are more punkish, and some are more pop," he said, though it’s hard to believe that he knew what any of that musical lingo actually meant.
On Wednesday, Ai said he will release the six-song record on June 22 — the second anniversary of his release from detention — and, as a teaser, he released a music video for the first song on the album, "Dumbass." In the video, an imprisoned Ai walks around his cell, flanked by two guards, then prances around in a suit, with two beautiful women at his side. In one scene, he showers himself. In another, he eats what appears to be wonton soup. It’s astoundingly inane.
Renowned cinematographer Christopher Doyle, best known for his work with Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai, shot the slick video, while Ai sings the words to a song co-written by Zuoxiao Zuzhou, one of the first truly alternative rockers to come out of Beijing. Alas, here, Zuoxiao Zuzhou’s otherwise decent song becomes an afterthought to lyrical and video content as subtle as a sledgehammer to the head: "Oh dumbass, oh such dumbass!" is one of the video’s more sophisticated lines.
The clumsiest part, however, is the grafting of two Chinese Internet memes: river crabs and the mythical Grass Mud Horse, examples of which appear in the transition between imprisoned Ai and a freed Ai. "River crab" in Chinese sounds like "harmony," a buzzword of former Chinese leader Hu Jintao’s; to "harmonize," or to "river crab" is a jokey way of saying "censor." The Grass Mud Horse (cao ni ma), a homonym for "fuck your mother," is a 2009 online meme representing a poke in the eye at the government’s online attempts at harmonization. This video is four years late to the party, though admittedly it’s one Ai helped start.
Those two items are the kind of moments that Ai the dissident celebrates and encourages: the brief and often clever battles that Chinese netizenry wage, and that embody Ai’s mission of standing up for free expression and the victims of the Chinese system. But an artist of Ai’s caliber should be able to find new ways to engage. "Dumbass" has the feel of on-the-outs culture figure making a last-gasp attempt at relevance.
That’s not to say Ai is irrelevant. The man releases one music video and the world’s major newspapers write about it. And he has certainly influenced his fellow citizens, through methods often extremely direct — for example, his efforts post-2008 Sichuan earthquake to count the number of schoolchildren who died as a result of shoddy schoolhouse construction. It’s hard not to sympathize with his decision to counter the subtle evil of a system of oppression with its opposite. But the best art — Ai’s included –doesn’t have to spell it out.
Ai’s "Study in Perspective" series (1995-2003) — in which the artist flips the bird, literally, to a series of landmarks around the world — managed to say a lot more with just one finger. Whether he was flipping off the White House, the Eiffel Tower, or Beijing’s Forbidden City, he was questioning authority in general, and making the viewer wonder why we hold particular places, people, things, ideas in such high esteem. But as any old rocker could tell you, the best way to say "fuck you" has never been to come out and say it.