BEIJING – The opening moments of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s new video (available on the artist’s website) set the tone for the next five minutes and 13 seconds. Against pounding guitar chords reminiscent of a Metallica classic, Ai is seen handcuffed and wearing a black hood in a dimly lit cell.
He described it as an “inch accurate” replica of the one in which he spent 81 days in detention after his arrest in 2011. Two guards stand over him when, suddenly, his hood is ripped off and the artist stares straight into the camera as the cadence builds to a crescendo. In the corners of his mouth and glint of his eyes is the familiar hint of rebellion seen before in his previous video work. It’s just the starting point.
The music video tells the story of Ai’s time behind bars after he was arrested in the spring of 2011 in a crackdown on dissidents and outspoken, creative thinkers. Eventually, the Chinese government charged him with tax evasion. He was only released after an international outcry put the spotlight on the Chinese government’s practice of detaining dissidents to silence them.
The government, he says, continues to hold his passport, making it impossible for him to travel outside China. Setting aside the music for a moment, the video is at times poignant and at others somewhat over the top. Ai has a notably recognizable, expressive face, although it is the very lack of expression in his art that has effectively conveyed his utter disdain for the Chinese leadership.
There are scenes that capture the extent to which he was monitored at all times: in the shower, while using the restroom, as he tried to sleep and when he ate. “I think it is about how the power of the state tried to manage and maintain this kind of control,” he told the New York Times.
At the narrative unfolds, Ai, 55, is portrayed as part-gangster, part-playboy. He has said the second half of the video is about the fantasies of his guards who openly questioned him about the “real” world outside the facility. Scenes of scantily clad women dancing on a small stage dissolve into a scenario in which a child around the same age as Ai’s own young son begins to shave his head. A bald Ai is next seen in drag wearing bright red lipstick and strutting back and forth in a black dress.
Ai, the son of renowned Chinese poet Ai Qing, has described the music as “heavy metal” although it is really more avant-garde. The lyrics embrace profanity, and few can be printed here. He describes China as a country that “puts out like a hooker” and the stanzas get more extreme from there. But he has said the entire experience was akin to therapy for an experience that still gives the artist and his family nightmares.
He worked on the project with the acclaimed Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who has worked with directors as diverse as Americans Gus Van Sant and M. Night Shyamalan and the Chinese director Zhang Yimou. A full-length album, “The Divine Comedy,” is set for release June 22. It will mark the two-year anniversary of his release from detention.
While the music might not have even devout fans rushing to download the album, Ai says the video has a broader message. “I wanted to show people we can all sing,” he told the New York Times. “It’s our voice.”