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Art, Pop and Politics: Ai Wei Wei does Gangnam Style

The Chinese dissident artist makes pop politics. (Embedded youtube)

I’ve been meaning to post this for a few days and maybe a bit of dissident frivolity is a suitable distraction from the ‘orrible news raining down on our poor friends on the US east coast. The global-Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei is a great example of being able to repurpose anything to his uses. It’s an old Confucian adage: The sound man is good at salvage, at seeing that nothing is lost.

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For some reason the tune or sound and rhythm of Gangnam Style disturbs my puppy Baxter, something about its electronic distortion and choppy insistence. Apart from its notoriety — it has been viewed over half a billion times — that jangly unsettling quality suits  perfectly Ai Wei Wei’s requirements (his dancing is less practiced but as cheerfully self-ironicising as Psy’s). The horse-riding choreography includes a certain wrist-over-wrist gesture and making the simplest of visual connections he creates a bluntly unmistakable political statement — the authorities have removed it from Chinese websites. It’s a strange bit of pop alchemy.

As the New Yorker’s culture blog also points out, Ai’s title for this parody is “Grass Mud Horse Style” — Mud Horse is a phrase which in Chinese is a homonym for “fuck your mother” — itself an extremely common (and coarse) Chinese insult. See Ai Wei Wei intimately clutching a Mud Horse thing. In very New Yorkery prose: “This time, by including the anti-censorship trope in his shanzhai (pirated) version of Psy’s video, itself a symbol in China of the power of cultural ferment, he exposes the absurdity of the Chinese government seeking to promote creativity while maintaining its strict censorship laws.”

The artist’s secret, not articulated by that piece, or by the NYer’s art critic, Peter Schjeldahl, is that Ai has dark fun — he understands the power of wickedness (Schjeldahl simply calls that vandalism) and the liberating effects of thumbing his nose inside a nation still calcified by politics, and which can still jail its dissidents with impunity. Fun courts danger, and Ai Wei Wei is the court jester. Come and get me!

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