Ai Weiwei, the dissident artist, comes in for lots of criticism, from the Chinese government and from many of his fellow contemporary artists. Now he’s taking flak from lots of folks, not for his politics or his art but for his weak parody of Gangnam Style. Here it is:
He calls his version of the weird K-Pop video “草泥马Style,” or “Grass Mud Horse Style,” a reference to a mythical creature that became a meme among Chinese bloggers in recent years because it sounds just like “cao ni ma,” a vulgar suggestion, cao, made to your mother, ni ma. It’s a big middle finger to the Chinese government (remember his famous series of photographs in which he literally gives the middle finger to a number of world monuments, including Mao’s portrait), the point being that Beijing’s censorship regime is as absurd as it is fragile. It was immortalized in a video for a children’s song, and by Ai, who posted a self-portrait on his blog in which he was naked, with a grass-mud horse stuffed animal covering his private parts.
Here, Ai and a crew of friends and assistants dance around his studio compound in Beijing’s art district – at one point he’s handcuffed to Chinese rock star Zuoxiao Zuzhou (左小祖咒), and, as Liz Flora points out at the Asia Society blog, the background is lined in pink chrysanthemums, flowers which are typically given at funerals in China and also feature prominently in mourning ceremonies. Ultimately, the video looks like it could have been made after a Friday afternoon office party. When I last visited in 2008, the compound emanated the feeling of a collective, something like The Factory, Andy Warhol’s famous studio space. Ai has sometimes been compared to Warhol, but there’s a crucial difference: the outright emphasis on politics, an urgent emphasis reflected in his three-month detention last year, in Ali Klayman’s revealing documentary about him, and in the decidedly non-Warhol-esque police detail that surveils his compound around the clock.
But to a number of critics who’ve raised their voices on the web in the past 24 hours (and who are probably exhausted, like the rest of us, with this song) the politics and the art are not quite mixing here. Odd and confusing, commenters have written, or just lazy.
He also came in for criticism, deservedly so, for his dance moves. “He’s the avant garde artist of his time, a sculpture, a satirist, a paragon voice for the masses evoking the dregs of social inequities,” one commenter sums it up on YouTube, “But god damn is he not a dancer.”
But I’d argue the video deserves a more nuanced reading. On one level, I like to imagine that Weiwei was simply demonstrating, with typical, witty metaphorical panache, just how little Gangnam Style China has. That was the subject of a recent post by Evan Osnos, who serves as a guide of sorts to the artist in Klayman’s film. He describes a sense of cultural inferiority among Chinese hipsters when it comes to producing anything like PSY’s pop concoction, and points to “Shanghai Style,” a comic strip in which cartoonist Peaceful House Pearl Shimao envisions a Chinese-style Gangnam phenomenon that lands its dancing protagonist in a mental institution for "involvement in multiple activities," "running crazily all over the place," and being a pig. Here it is:
China’s distinct lack of coolness, Osnos indicates, originates with a pervasive kind of contraint from the powers that be, a constraint that has not only made it hard, for instance, for Chinese movie studios to emulate the success of a movie like Kung Fu Panda, but that has also severely hampered the government’s ability to exercise “soft power” in overseas media. (But not for lack of trying; in 2009, the government invested over $7 billion in overseas media efforts, and now broadcasts on radio stations around the U.S. and from television bureaux in Nairobi and Washington, DC).
I think that another pernicious kind of constraint is to be blamed too: self-censorship. Ying Zhu, who’s just written Two Billion Eyes, a fascinating investigation into CCTV, China’s state TV broadcaster, argues that censorship of one’s self is the basis of most editorial decisions at the company. “In part, it’s a bread and butter issue. And much of is it a sense of nationalism. But it’s also a matter of interalizing what they’ve been told.”
Of course Ai’s video, available on YouTube, is not to be found on Chinese video sites (YouTube, meanwhile, is blocked in China). “A lot of people, tens of thousands," viewed it on Tudou, the Chinese video site, Ai said, before it was removed by censors. "Now, in China, it has already been totally removed, deleted entirely, and you can't see it in China.” A search for grass-mud horse, “草泥马,” on Youku, the most popular of those sites, and you’ll end up on page that’s blank except for that “The search results do not comply with relevant laws. regulations and policies, and not been displayed.”
After he was released from jail last year, Ai performed his own version of the “Grass Mud Horse” song (English translation here). And in 2009, Ai wrote about the Grass-Mud Horse on his blog, which has since been closed, but was translated by blogger Charlie Custer:
In sixty years, [I] have never seen a ballot. There isn't education for everyone, there isn't medical insurance, there's no freedom of the press, there's no freedom of speech, there's no freedom of information, there's no freedom to live and move where you choose, there's no independent judiciary, there's no one supervising public opinion, there are no independent trade unions, there's no armed forces that belongs to the nation, there's no protection of the constitution. All that's left is a Grass Mud Horse.
Given its obvious disappearance into China’s memory hole, one great thing about Ai’s PSY imitation is that, refreshingly, it isn’t rehearsed. As he tweeted, it was done with “no dress rehearsal” and “no practice, everyone improvised,” a lark with a bunch of friends and edited quickly, and a bit sloppily I might add, by one of Ai’s many loyal assistants. These are the people who have helped document a number of Ai’s projects and adventures on video and edited them into fly-on-the-wall documentaries, all posted on YouTube.
I was present for one of those projects, where I witnessed Ai’s improvisational abilities, and sense of humor and pragmatism first hand. When he’s not busy being provocative on social media or in sculpture, Ai also begrudgingly runs an architecture studio called Fake Design, whose name sounds like “Fuck Design” in Chinese. In 2008, he led a group of dozens of up-and-coming international architects out to Ordos, a desert city in Inner Mongolia that’s benefitted nicely from its coal riches (and that also happens to be home to one of China’s most famous 21st century ghost towns).
The plan was to build another brand new neighborhood, with 100 houses by 100 designers. Ultimately the project, dubbed “Ordos 100,” was more of an experiment in cross-cultual urban planning than a successful building project. But when the young foreign architects weren’t busy discussing academic ideas and the practical details of their strange commissions, I noticed them listening attentively to Ai, and saw an admiration among them for his own brand of architecture: simple, unadorned, utilitarian, a mix of devil-may-care indifference to the politics of architecture and a true concern for basic human needs. That’s a philosophy common to much of what Ai does, be it the elaborate heads of the zodiac he erected near Central Park last year – a commentary on the ways China’s cultural heritage has been plundered by the West – or a sloppy political parody of a viral video that’s managed to cross boundaries for its sheer funny absurdity. He matters because while he minds the status quo, he doesn’t let it stop him.
In a recently published video interview, Ai told Osnos about his efforts to always find new ways to communicate, often through the web. “You have watched too much Hollywood movies,” some tell him. “Are they right?” Osnos asks.
“I kind of agree with them. But can they tell me that there’s any other way I can achieve better results? I’m a person always willing to learn, to find a new way to communicate. But [those criticisms] are almost always personal, and I always demand very simple answers. Does anyone have any answers to these specific conditions, I would be very satisfied. I am waiting for any official to sit down and say, Weiwei, let’s sit down, let’s have a talk. What’s your point? Let me see how ridiculous you are. None of them. Either they give you orders or they punish you.”
Is the Internet accelerating freedom of speech in China, Osnos asks, or is it making it easier for China to control that freedom? “Only by successfully [containing information] do they maintain this kind of control,” says Ai. But “to think that some kind of government could stop it is really underestimating the idea of freedom, personal will, the ability of the individual, underestimating humanity. It’s a pitiful thought.”
Ai’s grass mud horse pose.
There’s a sense that Ai has lately sought to capitalize on his success by appealing to Western, not Chinese audiences. But fame and notoriety haven’t meant that he’s squandered his opportunity to speak out in China. He was warned not to criticize the government following his detention last year, but he hasn’t stopped agitating online. His experiment in Ordos was a prestige project, funded by a billionaire businessman, but it was also a living piece of art itself, and while it didn’t result in much architecture it produced an interesting video document of urban development and Western architects in contemporary China. On the current landscape of Chinese modern art, where the most lucrative auctions on the planet turn painters and sculptors into instant millionaires with little political backbone to speak of, Ai’s artwork is by contrast mercifully unafraid. And, much like the grass-mud horse meme, it forgoes taste for something that’s vulgar, mischievous, silly, and as stupid as it is deliciously complex.
On the surface, the parody is kind of lame, no question, and arguably doesn’t pack nearly as much punch as much of the rest of his “work.” But of course, if you step back and look – and at the risk of romanticizing the hard-fought activism of an artist like Ai – there’s more to this than just surface. He’s gotta work on his dance moves, but here’s Weiwei, just being himself, cheeky, political, fun and, yes, un-censored.