22 May 2013

Brief Thoughts on Ai Weiwei's Music Video, "Dumbass"

Together with the brilliant lightning storms and torrential rains that doused Hong Kong, for me this morning brought the release of a new music video entitled "Dumbass" (the Chinese title is much more raw) from Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.

As with almost everything Ai touches these days, "Dumbass" is a polarizing piece of work. Those who like his brand of (increasingly) political performance art will probably like it, while those who tend to see his facility with the foreign media as his primary talent are unlikely to change their views upon listening to this latest project.

I'll admit that, musically, "Dumbass" is not my cup of tea (though I've heard far, far worse). I think the video is visually quite stunning, which shouldn't be a surprise given that it was filmed by Christopher Doyle, cinematographer for some of my favorite films--Edward Yang's That Day, on the Beach, the best works of Wong Kar Wai, and Philip Noyce's lovely Rabbit Proof Fence.

What struck me most viscerally about the video is the way it depicts Ai Weiwei's 81-day detention in "designated-location residential surveillance" back in the spring of 2011. Almost every shot of the first half of the video--the constant surveillance by guards, the ordeal of trying to sleep with light shining down on you all night, the humiliation of being watched as you shower and use the toilet, the effort to retain some semblance of activity in a confined space shared with captors--vividly recreates aspects of what it is like to be held under this form of incommunicado detention. The repetition of many of these scenes (the endless pacing) adds an extra layer of discomfort.

Ai's portrayal of these experiences, which others who have been subjected to similar detention have also described in detail, is of course a more stylized depiction than the reality of "residential surveillance." This is, after all, not a documentary. My radar might be particularly attuned to these aspects, but I'd contend that there is still a kind of truth being conveyed in this performance--one that might be too hastily dismissed by some who are more focused on aesthetics.

Further reading:

No comments:

Post a Comment