11:17am

Wed May 22, 2013
Parallels

China's Artist Provocateur Explores New Medium: Heavy Metal

Originally published on Wed May 22, 2013 6:18 pm

The man ArtReview magazine named the most powerful artist in the world is trying his hand at rock stardom. In 2011, the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei spent 81 days in detention. He was later let go and charged with tax evasion. Now, he has released his first heavy metal song, based on his time in police detention.

The video for the song, "Dumbass," opens with a scene showing Ai Weiwei sitting in a chair, a black hood over his head. Written on the hood are the words "suspected criminal." As he paces the cell, two guards pace with him. As he sleeps, one stands over his bed. Even seated on the toilet, they are just feet away, always present.

These scenes dissolve into the fantasies of one of the prison guards, including plastic blow-up dolls taking Ai's place in his bed, and the whole video ending with Ai, head shaved, dancing in drag. Ai says this dystopian nightmare — shot by cinematographer Christopher Doyle — reflects his detention experience.

"At least you shared my nightmares. I had terrible nightmares after I was released," Ai says during an interview in his Beijing studio Wednesday. "But think about so many political prisoners, they're still in jail. So I make my music to give to them."

Ai's voice is angry, and the lyrics are explicit, at one point comparing China to a prostitute. The music was written by Zuoxiao Zuzhou, known as "China's Leonard Cohen." The song's title refers to anybody, Ai says, "who still has illusions about this political condition and have illusions to think there is possibility to make some kind of change. I think the system itself refused to make any kind of change."

This is the first track issued from The Divine Comedy, an album set to be released on June 22, the anniversary of his release from detention.

As he taps away incessantly on Twitter, Ai Weiwei seems to be becoming a global brand.

He can't leave China because the government never gave him back his passport after he was released from his detention. But he has ongoing projects scattered around the world.

He has an exhibition in Indianapolis and another piece in Hong Kong. Three projects are coming up in the Venice Biennale,, and he has a traveling exhibition heading for Princeton, N.J.; Cleveland; Toronto; and Miami.

He's the featured interview in this month's Playboy magazine, while filmmaker Alison Klayman's documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry has played in theaters around the world.

There's even a book about his arrest, "Hanging Man: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei," which has been adapted into a hash-tagged, live-streamed stage play in London, "#aiww: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei."

Ai says he's "amazed" by the experience of watching someone portraying his experience on stage on the other side of the world. But playwright Howard Brenton sees the play as a collaboration, pointing out that it was Ai's own idea.

"We are part of his project really," Brenton told the BBC. "Ai Weiwei's work is like stones being thrown into a pond; the ripples, sort of like shock waves, get everywhere."

So what is his project anyway?

"My project is very simple," Ai answers. "It's freedom."

Though Ai Weiwei may not be able to carry a tune, he's not deterred. It may be dumb to speak out, he says. But Ai believes every citizen with a voice should use it to speak up for those who cannot.

"Courage," he says, "is not something you should sacrifice."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

A man who's been called the most powerful artist in the world is trying his hand at rock stardom. The dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has made a music video. It's inspired by the 81 days he spent in detention in 2011. NPR's Louisa Lim met him this morning in Beijing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC VIDEO)

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: The video shows Ai Weiwei sitting in a chair, a black hood over his head. Written on it are the words: suspected criminal. As he paces the cell, two guards pace with him. As he sleeps, they stand by his bed. This dissolves into the fantasies of the prison guards; ending with Ai, head shaved, dancing in drag. It's a dystopian nightmare, and that's the point.

AI WEIWEI: At least you shared my nightmares. And I had terrible nightmares after I was released. But think about so many political prisoners. They're still in jail. So I make my music to give to them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC VIDEO)

LIM: Ai's voice is angry, the lyrics too explicit to translate. He compares China to a prostitute. Even the song's title is intentionally confrontational. Ai Weiwei explains the choice of name.

WEIWEI: Dumbass, we call somebody who still have illusion about this political condition and have illusion to think there's possibility to make some kind of change. I think the system itself refused to make any kind of change.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC VIDEO)

LIM: As he taps away incessantly on Twitter, Ai Weiwei seems to be a global brand. In person, he cannot leave Beijing, having had his passport taken away. But he has one exhibition in Indianapolis, another piece in Hong Kong. Three projects are coming up in the Venice Biennale, as well as a traveling exhibition heading for Princeton, Cleveland and Miami. He's in this month's Playboy magazine. There's a documentary about him, a book about his arrest and recently in London, a play was staged about his ordeal.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as Character) You have to admit the crimes.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (as Character) But it's not a court. I haven't been charged. Why do I have to?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as character) You have to. Trust me. If you don't, you'll never see us again. You'll never come back.

LIM: Speaking to the BBC, playwright Howard Brenton said the play was Ai Weiwei's own idea.

HOWARD BRENTON: I mean, we are part of his project, really. Ai Weiwei's work is like stones being thrown into a pond. The ripples sort of like shock waves get everywhere.

LIM: So what is his project anyway? I asked Ai Weiwei.

WEIWEI: My project is very simple. It's freedom.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC VIDEO)

LIM: He may not be able to sing in tune, but this, he believes, is the sound of freedom. Ai Weiwei believes every citizen with a voice should use it, and courage is not something to sacrifice. Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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