Last month in Beijing, I sat in the sunny courtyard of Ai Weiwei’s studio and had the most profound encounter I’ve ever had with an artist. The great Chinese dissident and creator spoke softly, soberly, smartly about the oppressions of his native land, and what they mean for his own art and for Chinese society and creativity. He seemed a genuine sage, not simply reciting canned phrases, as most media darlings end up doing, but truly thinking on the spot about the issues at hand.
Then this morning I watched Ai making an ass of himself in his new cover version of the meme-ish dance video called “Gangnam Style,” released in July by the Korean pop star known as Psy. Wearing wraparounds and a shocking pink shirt, Ai mugs and gyrates alongside his usual complement of studio hangers-on, both Chinese and Western. The video intercuts their antics with goofy shots (of horses, of booty, of fancy cars) culled from the original Korean footage.
The two Ai’s I’ve seen strike me as one and the same. The value that Ai holds most dear, in his art and his life, is freedom—freedom to think and talk as he pleases and to make the art that he wants. His new video shows another kind of freedom he’s insisting on: the freedom to do whatever silly, useless, harmless thing he desires. It’s the freedom to thumb his nose not just at the Chinese authorities—although they’ve clearly been feeling nose-thumbed, shutting down access to Ai’s video on the country’s websites—but at everyone and everything that settles for conformity (of which there is more in China than in some other countries).
The video’s title is another rejection of propriety. Ai has replaced the word “Gangnam” in the name of Psy’s piece—whose dance moves mimic riding a pony—with the phrase “Grass Mud Horse,” which in Mandarin sounds very close to a crude thing you might do to your mother. The phrase has been used for several years now to tease censors in Chinese cyberspace. (For an example of the same linguistic effect in English, Google “typical country weather”—but only if you’re a grownup.)
Ai’s video occasionally hints at more specific critical intentions: several shots show the artist dangling handcuffs as he dances, which seems an obvious reference to his own incarceration and to how ineffective it was. But those snippets of allegory are barely necessary in a video that has an assertion of freedom built into all four minutes and 15 seconds of it.
A final freedom that Ai is claiming is the liberty to borrow—to steal, really—whatever material he needs to make his artistic point, regardless of copyright or creative politesse. He knows that, once they’re incorporated into an authentic Ai Weiwei work, the segments he raids from Psy’s video mean something very different than they originally did. However unchanged they may look on the surface, in Ai’s hands these borrowings have in fact become utterly “transformed,” to use the language of copyright law—just as Marcel Duchamp’s store-bought urinal became an entirely different kind of cultural object once he’d declared it a sculpture named “Fountain.”
The original Gangnam video is unchallenging pop-culture pap. Ai’s cover version is part of a daring artistic campaign aimed at waking up the largest nation in human history. And Ai knows that to achieve his goals (which must include staying out of jail, so he can live to dance another day) he needs to keep as much in the public eye as he can. Riding the Gangnam wave is one clever way to do that.
In the wake of his riff on Psy, Ai appeared on camera with an explanation: “We feel that every person has the right to express themselves, and this right to expression is fundamentally linked to our happiness, and even our existence. When a society constantly demands that everyone should abandon that right, then the society becomes a society without creativity. It can never become a happy society.”
The sage was there all along, even in wraparounds.