As China’s most notorious contemporary artist releases the first single from his album, Art Radar looks back at the many media faces of Ai Weiwei.

Ai Weiwei released the debut single from his first rock album, “Divine Comedy”, on 22 May 2013. Dumbass, which is highly critical of the Chinese government, immediately suffered the same fate as many of Ai’s previous artworks, with state media outlets banning it from airwaves.

Ai Weiwei. © Thomas Fuesser.

Chinese contemporary artist and now rock musician Ai Weiwei. Image courtesy Thomas Fuesser.

Dumbass, released on 22 May 2013, was inspired by the 81 days Ai Weiwei spent in detention without charge in 2011. The rock song, whose expletive-heavy lyrics criticise both the Chinese government and the country’s intellectuals, many of whom Ai considers complicit in the country’s continuing human rights abuses, is both protest and catharsis for the artist, who told The Guardian that he still bears the mental scars of his imprisonment.

Speaking at a ceremony in Beijing to mark the songs release, Ai said,

People who are detained suffer traumas, and those who detain us know this very well. This is why we are secretly detained, blindfolded, cuffed, not allowed to meet with lawyers and relatives. I had been thinking about how to recover from the trauma. And I came up with the idea of using music to convey a sentiment that is tremendously secret, and private, to the public.

Associated Press

Watch Ai Weiwei’s first single Dumbass on below.

The music video for Dumbass shows the artist handcuffed and hooded, reconstructing the conditions of Ai’s time in prison to an “inch accurate” degree, the artist told The Guardian. Expressionless guards watch Ai as he eats, sleeps and even uses the toilet. “I think [the video] is about how the power of the state tried to manage and maintain this kind of control”, Ai explained to the New York Times.

For most internet users, the song and video are freely available on Ai’s website and various online platforms. But access for web users in mainland China is restricted: assistants of Ai claimed they were unable to upload Dumbass to Chinese social media sites such as Sina and Weibo because of censorship by the Chinese authorities, reported the BBC.

Nevertheless Ai told the Associated Press that even if people in China didn’t hear his song, making it was still important,

This video was not shot for me, and this song, I am not singing for myself. This is dedicated to all those people who do not have the opportunity to raise their voice, who will never be able to raise their voices. This is not just one generation. In the past sixty years there have been innumerable amounts of people who have been killed or sent away from their homes, even tortured to death.

Ai Weiwei's 'Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn'. Image from

Ai Weiwei, ‘Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn’, 1995. Image courtesy

China’s most dangerous media man

This may be his first single, but Ai Weiwei is no stranger to finding new and surprising forms of self-expression. Art Radar takes a closer look at the many media manifestations of China’s most famous contemporary artist.

The Music – Dumbass is the first track from Ai’s forthcoming album “The Divine Comedy”, slated for release on 22 July 2013. The rock album has been described as avant-garde by ABC News and “heavy metal” by the artist himself, although he later admitted to The Guardian that he was unsure what heavy metal is. The rock album marks a departure from Ai’s original first single, a cover of Korean hit Gangnam Style which saw the artist dancing around in handcuffs while critiquing government policy. Ai’s cover spawned a tribute record by Anish Kapoor, in which the Indian-born artist fights for the right to freedom of expression.

The Movie – Winner at Sundance Film Festival 2012, Alison Klayman’s documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry follows the artist as he pursues justice following an alleged attack by Chinese police, and is pursued by the authorities in return. The documentary places Ai in the context of contemporary China, where his followers know him as Teacher Ai and sometimes Ai-God.

The Play – Like Dumbass, Howard Brenton’s 2012 play The Arrest of Ai Weiwei covers the artist’s time behind bars. Described by theatre critic Michael Billington as “a mix of Kafka and Beckett” in a good way, the play won over media commentators with its overt nods to installation art. Typically for a production associated with Ai, the play was also live-streamed over the internet for free.

Click here to watch Ai Weiwei’s 2011 TED Talk on social media and the future of China.

The Social Media Networks – From live chat forums to viral video posts, from political statements over Twitter to pictures of his cats on Instagram, Ai has become synonymous with online activism and digital dissent. Projects such as his work with the Sichuan earthquake victims, which combine plangent political comment, conceptual art and social media activity, have earned Ai a place at the top of Art Review‘s Power 100 List (2011) as well as the moniker of “China’s most dangerous man“.


Related Topics: Chinese artists, political art, art and the internet, Ai Weiwei

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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