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Through Music and Film
Ai Weiwei

Blog
Through Music and Film Ai Weiwei

21.06.2018

Text: Leyla Aksu

Slowly permeating our collective pop-conscience, artist, activist, and dissident Ai Weiwei continues to be one of the most diligently prolific and controversial names of recent years. Working across any and all media, while utilizing and embracing technology and transparency, he infuses his own story alongside the offer of voice to those who have none. A featured guest at the Sakıp Sabancı Museum with his exhibition “Ai Weiwei On Porcelain” until 15 April, 2018, Ai Weiwei is an artist that expresses himself through many different disciplines, from video to installation. Giving his film and documentary work a special place within his artistic output, Ai Weiwei most recently premiered his documentary Human Flow at the Venice Film Festival, where it received the Golden Lion. Now, we are going to take a closer look at some of the artist’s lesser-known projects via the media of film and music.

- Educated at the Beijing Film Academy before leaving for the U.S. in the 1980’s, Ai Weiwei’s film work mostly began in the early-2000’s, documenting his own artistic interventions as well as his home country’s vast changes in infrastructure, social structure, and increases in governmental pressure, surveillance, and authoritarianism. His relationship with music, however, was much more strained.

- Mostly associating music with forms of cultural and political control, Ai Weiwei initially shared that he did not care much for listening to music: “When I was growing up, we were forced to listen to only Communist music. I think that left a bad impression.” “Of course, I am able to enjoy music, to be touched. But I never intentionally ask for any music. So for me, the best music should be silent, is mute,” a view that was set to change rather drastically in the years to come.

- Ai Weiwei’s documentary work began with a slew of pieces like Beijing 2003 (2003), Chang’an Boulevard (2004), Beijing: The Second Ring, and Beijing: The Third Ring (2005), each examining the capital of Beijing, preserving a record of the city’s developing infrastructure and drastically changing social conditions, highlighting an intense period of urban renewal through hours of captured footage.

- These films were followed up by 2007’s Fairytale, a detailed record of the account of bringing 1001 Chinese citizens to Germany for a span of 28 days, in the creation a mass-scale fairytale. The project also featured one of Ai’s most frequent collaborators, underground musician and producer Zuoxiao Zuzhou, who he has called, “the most important musician in China.”

- Next, in 2008, Ai Weiwei’s documentaries shifted focus onto the devastating Sichuan earthquake, with films including Little Girl’s Cheeks (2008), conceived as an element of the citizen’s investigation initiated to gather more information, and 4851 (2009), a tribute to the students lost in the disaster. As the investigation continued on and more names were revealed, 2010 saw the release of the audio piece “Remembrance,” a project reciting the names and giving a voice to the 5,205 students that were eventually identified as having lost their lives in the earthquake.

- Sharing the stories of his fellow citizens’ experiences with the government’s crackdown, some of his following film projects were A Beautiful Life (2009), focusing on Feng Zhenghu, who was denied entry into the country nine times, Disturbing the Peace (2009), on the detention and trial of civil rights advocate Tan Zouren, One Recluse (2010), following the controversial trial of Yang Jia, Hua Hao Yue Yuan (2010), tracing the harassment and abuse of activists Liu Dejun and Liu Shasha, Piang’an Yeuqing (2011), looking into the death of Qian Yunhui, and Stay Home (2013), the story of Liu Ximei, who was born in violation of the country’s one-child policy, to name a few.

- Increasingly drawing government attention and experiencing harassment himself, given the critical nature of his work, it was also during these years that Ai Weiwei started turning the camera on himself more and more frequently. For example, while the documentary So Sorry (2011), focuses on Ai Weiwei’s own strained relationship with the Chinese Government after being beaten by the police, Ai Weiwei’s appeal 15,220,910.50 (2014), recreates the events of his 81-day detainment in 2011.

- In the years following his detention, music also came to occupy a new role within Ai Weiwei’s work. Regarding his changing relationship to music, the artist has said, "To tell you the truth, I never listened to music. Then, during my detention, the guards were so bored they kept saying to me, 'Can you sing a song?' I felt so sad I couldn't sing any except the revolutionary ones we had to learn when we were growing up… It would have made the time seem much shorter.”

- One of the first pieces that came into public consciousness in this regard was his satirical 2012 music video, taking on Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” poking fun at government censorship. The following year, on the two-year anniversary of his release, Ai Weiwei debuted his pop-metal album Divine Comedy, produced by Zuoxiao Zuzhou. Signaling the release of the six-track album was the striking video for the song “Dumbass,” fully recreating his experiences while in detention. It was at that point that Ai Weiwei said, "Music is a kind of self-therapy and at the same time helps the public to see. Even conditions like these can still turn into a positive effort.”

- In 2014, while still under house-arrest in China, his work then headed to San Francisco, breaking into Alcatraz for an exhibition entitled, @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz. Once again focusing on human rights violations and state censorship, the exhibit also featured multiple sound installations with music by imprisoned musicians such as Pussy Riot, Tibetan singer Lolo, and the Robben Island Singers.

- An interesting collaboration in 2015 then saw Ai Weiwei’s take on mixed-media opera with As Big as the Sky. Working with Dutch composer Arnoud Noordegraaf and British writer Adrian Hornsby, Ai Weiwei’s set pieces and film installations formed the backdrop for the unconventional piece set in modern-day China and were later exhibited as stand-alone installations as well.

- Some of Ai Weiwei’s most recent work, however, one again shifts his lens, this time on the growing refugee crisis. In 2016, amongst a series of other projects, the artist brought music to the Greece-Macedonia border. “Tell[ing] the world the art will overcome the war,” he placed a white grand piano on the shore of the Idomeni refugee camp and invited Nour Al Khzam to play and share her music. Of the project he said, "We want to reveal a new image of them, to relay possibility, art and imagination. This is the image that needs to be relayed to the world."

- Finally, towards the end of 2017, Ai Weiwei released his long-anticipated documentary on mass-displacement and migration, Human Flow. The culmination of a year of filming and hundreds of hours of footage from Africa to Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and North America, the film was shot across 23 countries, visiting over 40 camps. Following the refugee crisis both on the ground, from above, and beyond borders, his feature-debut aims to capture the scale of a seemingly ceaseless and devastating human flow.

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