Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Ai Weiwei rocks out against detention

By Alexis Lai, CNN
May 27, 2013 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Chinese artist-activist Ai Weiwei releases heavy metal song, music video inspired by government detention
  • Music video recreates Ai's ordeal in jail, with expletive-laden lyrics denouncing government repression
  • Ai Weiwei also debuted art installation in Hong Kong on hot-button, cross-border issue on milk formula
  • Ai Weiwei will release music album next month

Hong Kong (CNN) -- Ai Weiwei is at it again. This time, the controversial Chinese artist-activist has taken his first venture into music, releasing a heavy metal single and music video inspired by his harrowing detention by the government two years ago.

A perpetual thorn in the Chinese government's side, Ai, whose projects have spanned art installations, film, photography, writing, and architecture, was en route to Hong Kong in April 2011 when he was taken into custody at Beijing's international airport.

He was detained for 81 days amid a government crackdown on political activists, widely believed to stem from government fears of a potential uprising inspired by the Arab Spring. Upon his release, Ai was subjected to severe restrictions on his movements and later accused of tax evasion -- charges which he rejected and unsuccessfully challenged in court.

Entitled "Dumbass," the five-minute music video features the burly, bearded artist recreating his time in jail to expletive-laden lyrics denouncing government repression.

Dissident artist goes 'Gangnam Style'
Behind the scenes with Ai Weiwei
Weiweicam.com cutoff
Ai Weiwei: Tax politically motivated

"The idea (for this song) first came to me while I was in detention and the guards watching me quietly inquired if I could sing," Ai told CNN. "That was when I realized that both the guards and I were being detained; in their three years in the army, they had never been allowed to leave this place."

"For young people around the ages of 19-20, music can spark their imagination and passion, and this small incident moved me. After I was released, I thought I should write my own song," he added.

Ai penned the lyrics to "Dumbass," while rock musician Zuoxiao Zuzhou composed the music and Australia's Christopher Doyle directed the video's cinematography.

Ai said the dark visuals, from the artist being taken into jail with a black hood to being perpetually accompanied by two guards while eating, sleeping, and using the bathroom, mirrored his ordeal.

Some of his jabs at government repression in the video materialize in defiant fantastical elements, such as the river crabs scampering over the toilet ("hexie" is a pun for "harmonization" -- a government euphemism for societal repression) and the horse sitting in for the artist bound to a chair ("caonima" is a pun for cursing someone's mother).

Ai said the "dumbasses" and "f**kers" he denounced in his lyrics also refer to scholars and intellectuals in China who "don't have a clear understanding of China. Despite going through so many disasters, they are still deluded. I find this ridiculous."

In one scene, the artist's head is shaved by a child -- a reference to his then two-year-old son whom Ai said he constantly thought of during his detention and whom he feared would no longer recognize him by the time he was released.

He said the song may help him overcome the trauma of his detention, which he described as "extremely difficult." At the same time, he said he has no regrets over his actions, believing that people have a responsibility to bring hope and warmth into the world -- and that as an artist, he has certain platforms of expression that he should use to this end.

"Many people are still imprisoned, many for much longer (than me) because we all expressed a difference of opinion and were accused of incitement to subvert state power," he added. "So I have to speak out for them."

\
"Milk Formula", 2013.
\
"Milk Formula", 2013. (close-up)

Meanwhile, the artist addressed another pressing problem in China -- mainland Chinese, spooked by a scandal over melamine-tainted baby milk formula, have snapped up tins in Hong Kong, leading to a public outcry over the resulting shortage and the institution of a two-can (1.8 kg) cross-border limit in March by the city's authorities.

"Milk Formula" debuted at a Hong Kong exhibition Friday -- a 10 meter by 8 meter map of China created with 1,815 tins of various brands of baby formula.

"Although China's economy is developing, China's food products and the environment have already been completely sacrificed because of deteriorating ethics," Ai said. He described the situation of people needing to seek milk formula outside their own country to feed their children as "absurd."

While Ai professed no solutions, saying that the purpose of art is raise questions, he said the problem of milk formula should be resolved by the people rather than through harsh legal measures. "It shows that the 'one country, two systems' [policy] is extremely contradictory and difficult to coordinate," he added.

"Dumbass" is one of six songs on the topic of Ai's detention -- the rest will be released next month as part of an album based on his personal experiences.

CNN's Beijing bureau contributed reporting.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 0518 GMT (1318 HKT)
A top retired general has confessed to taking bribes, becoming the highest-profile figure in China's military to be caught up in President Xi Jinping's war on corruption.
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 0507 GMT (1307 HKT)
A group in China escapes from a stuck elevator thanks to one man and his trusty hammer. CNN's Kristie Lu Stout reports.
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1352 GMT (2152 HKT)
Facebook's founder says he taught himself Mandarin and tested his skills with students in China.
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 0133 GMT (0933 HKT)
China launched an experimental spacecraft that is scheduled to orbit the moon before returning to Earth.
October 28, 2014 -- Updated 1619 GMT (0019 HKT)
Full marks for ingenuity: This was a truly high-tech scam.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 0526 GMT (1326 HKT)
The rationale behind Confucius Institutes -- an international chain of academic centers run by an arm of the Chinese government -- is understandable.
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1511 GMT (2311 HKT)
Smooth jazz saxophonist Kenny G wants everyone to know that he's not a foreign agitator trying to defy the Chinese Communist Party.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1113 GMT (1913 HKT)
A smuggler in Dandong, a Chinese border town near North Korea, tells CNN about the underground trade with North Korean soldiers
October 28, 2014 -- Updated 0511 GMT (1311 HKT)
Yenn Wong got quite a surprise one morning earlier this month when she found out an exact copy of her Hong Kong restaurant had opened in China.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0315 GMT (1115 HKT)
When I first came across a "virtual lover" service on e-commerce site Taobao, China's version of Amazon, I thought it was hype.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
Each year Yi Jiefeng does what she can to stop China turning into a desert.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1454 GMT (2254 HKT)
As its relationship with the West worsen, Russia is pivoting east in an attempt to secure business with China.
October 8, 2014 -- Updated 0229 GMT (1029 HKT)
Aspiring Chinese comics performing in Shanghai's underground comedy scene hope to bring stand-up to the masses.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1654 GMT (0054 HKT)
Liu Wen is one of the world's highest-paid models and the first Chinese face to crack the top five in Forbes' annual list of top earners.
October 3, 2014 -- Updated 1144 GMT (1944 HKT)
Cunning wolf? Working class hero? Or bland Beijing loyalist? C.Y. Leung was a relative unknown when he came to power in 2012.
October 2, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
 A man uses his smartphone on July 16, 2014 in Tokyo, Japan. Only 53.5% of Japanese owned smartphones in March, according to a white paper released by the Ministry of Communications on July 15, 2014. The survey of a thousand participants each from Japan, the U.S., Britain, France, South Korea and Singapore, demonstrated that Japan had the fewest rate of the six; Singapore had the highest at 93.1%, followed by South Korea at 88.7%, UK at 80%, and France at 71.6%, and U.S. at 69.6% in the U.S. On the other hand, Japan had the highest percentage of regular mobile phone owners with 28.7%. (Photo by Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images)
App hopes to help those seeking a way out of China's overstrained public health system.
October 3, 2014 -- Updated 0020 GMT (0820 HKT)
Yards from pro-democracy protests, stands the Hong Kong garrison of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), China's armed forces.
ADVERTISEMENT