If there’s anyone in China who might understand what it means to parody something — actually, truly parody, and not just copy or co-opt — it’s Ai Weiwei. He’s an artist, you know. Who better than he to skewer China’s nouveau riche and be this country’s answer to PSY? You think Gangnam, South Korea is a district of gross decadence and put-on fakery? You must not have seen the expat communities in Shunyi, or the empty apartments in SOHO purchased by moneyed speculators, or the nearly complete compound on Xihuangchenggen South Street, between Zhongnanhai and Xidan, which required demolishing a neighborhood and, when done, will be 100 percent exclusive. There’s enough material in Beijing alone for a dozen “Gangnam Style” videos, but we don’t need a dozen. We — this country of China — need one. And we need someone — someone like Ai Weiwei — to do it.
I’m here to tell you Ai Weiwei did not do it. What did he give us? Four wasted minutes of Artist and Friends. Dancing. In front of vines and potted plants. With clips of the original Gangnam spliced in for some reason.
That’s it. If, in the name of art, Ai Weiwei dropped an IKEA-purchased brass pot on our feet, we’d have less reason to be so dismayed.
It’s true, of course, that Ai could be making fun of himself, which would be a step up from, say, China Style. But it’s not a good sign that the best thing I have to say about this video is that it could be intentionally trying to suck, and that’s why it doesn’t suck. It’s a face-saving excuse though; how else do you explain the lack of buildup, storytelling, or point?
The most eye-opening scene — if your eyes were already open and you needed to look up — was when Ai Weiwei handcuffed himself to a friend and the two danced in tandem. By then, however, I’d lost all hope that this video cared. What makes it all the more disappointing — and infuriating — is that it began with so much promise, specifically the inflammatory characters “Grass Mud Horse.” A homophone for “fuck your mom,” this is the type of sensitive phrase that attracts censors like blood to sharks, precisely because its intended purpose is to fight censorship. For an artist like Ai Weiwei — purportedly “provocative” — to employ these characters signals that he “gets it,” that he’s picking up the ball and running with it. Except he doesn’t run. He barely even trots, as it becomes apparent.
One might be tempted to argue that Ai Weiwei, meta genius that he is, is giving the middle finger to Chinese authorities who desperately want to push soft power. By not creating substance, even though he is in a prime position to do so, he is telling viewers that creativity cannot be forced, and certainly cannot be pushed by the government.
But then why is it only on YouTube, broadcast to everyone except those in China? No, Ai Weiwei is not saying F-U to Chinese authorities, or censors, or anyone here. He’s merely refilling his cache of cool with the Western world, reminding his Western fans and Western journalists that he’s a good guy who “gets it.” He gets it because he knows how to dance on an invisible horse, and hey, that’s something you like, right?
Obviously I’m being much too harsh, and expected way too much. Ai and his assistants must have been in the throes of boredom one day when one of them said, Hey, you know what’s fun? Nothing in the world is more fun these days than pretending to ride an invisible horse, so the Ai team took a picture, made a video, and went on their way, never expecting that some asshole would read way too much into their vanity project.
But let me ask: have we not reached the point where we can allow ourselves to look slightly deeper? As a society, I mean. Gangnam Style was always about more than the tune, however catchy, and the jig, however fun. Why must all our parodies of it intentionally ignore its intended purpose, and as a result live down its potential?
Xinhua, in its assessment of Gangnam, criticized China by way of observation: “The mentality of shanzhai and copying has gradually eaten away at China’s ability to be culturally creative.” I never thought I’d see the day when an Ai Weiwei project would fail to rise above a Xinhua critique.