Saint Ai, The Musician: The Divine Comedy, Reviewed

Ai Weiwei - The Divine Comedy

Ai Weiwei has managed to upset and alienate many groups during his reign as China’s national gadfly, particularly within the past five years, a period in which the 55-year-old’s public profile has swelled to supernova proportions. A respondent brought up the “Ai Weiwei Effect” in last month’s roundup of critical reactions to Ai Weiwei and Zuoxiao Zuzhou’s song “Dumbass,” and on the eve of the release of The Divine Comedy – the six-song album on which Dumbass appears — it’s worth asking again: how do we perform aesthetic analysis of the outspoken artist-cum-activist’s work when our perceptions are so colored by sentiment?

Saint Ai, Patron Saint of the Persecuted

Ai’s celebrity status is self-perpetuating and now beyond his control. Short of sealing himself off and banishing all visitors, journalists, and collaborators from his studio while refusing to create and promote — creating and promoting generally being what creative people do — I assume he can’t control who writes about him, who gives him public shout-outs, and how his art will be interpreted by a Western public that still views China, at best, as a cypher, and at worst as a gray-colored dystopia rife with baby-aborting drones and entire cities of enslaved assembly-line workers.

The accusations of shameless headline-seeking behavior will always be there, even as Ai just does what he’s always done. This is, after all, the guy who co-organized an avant-garde exhibition, Fuck Off, that he packed with transgressive content from dozens of domestic artists, including a piece by Zhu Yu called “Eating People,” a depiction of simulated cannibalism that continues to surface online a decade later as anti-Chinese propaganda, and another earlier piece featuring Ai himself famously hurling an ancient vase to the ground as a call to civic action.

We’re talking about the guy who worked with a Swiss design firm in creating the modern-day symbol of an ascendant China, the Bird’s Nest, only to later dismiss the Olympics entirely as a “fake smile” to the world, and the guy who made it his mission to hold authorities responsible for the shoddy construction that led to 5,200 dead schoolchildren after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. He had his first major retrospective in North America, According to What?, at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC last fall — it’s currently parked in Indianapolis — which has generated extra press because Chinese authorities have forbidden him to attend.

Point is: Ai has always been controversial. His visibility, our perceptions of celebrity, a buffoonish party-state, and the now-ubiquitous presence of social media is the problem — not the man, and certainly not how he chooses to express himself.

A large part of his visibility, ironically, may be due to the authorities’ revocation of his passport, a counterproductive measure that has forced the artist to engage the public online through social media and microblogging platforms that — as Tao noted last month after an impromptu haircut became a public event that even the venerable James Fallows couldn’t resist gushing about — reinforce the cult and farce of celebrity and lend newsworthy status to even the most mundane activities.

Perhaps if the country’s knuckle-dragging simpletons didn’t engage in their perennial goon-squad tactics — shuttering Ai’s blog, harassing and arresting his assistants, administering cerebral hemorrhage, tearing down his Shanghai studio, among other heavy-handed measures — then he wouldn’t have settled so comfortably into his role as Saint Ai, the Romantic Dissident. He wouldn’t be the guy you reflexively sneer at whenever he presents another creative endeavor.

China has a way of alienating everyone, including itself.

Saint Ai, Patron Saint of Stinging Rebuke

Constant media presence comes with blowback. Domestic critics, artists, writers, and others in the country’s creative community often decry the Beijing-born son of a persecuted poet for his vacuum-like effect when it comes to representing the mainland Chinese art scene to the rest of the world; for artificially driving up prices, denying others their moment in the sun, and unnecessarily baiting the authorities, which some say leads to increased scrutiny on a community that is already viewed with suspicion.

The near-consensus among those in China’s expatriate community — or at least the slice that’s plugged into English-language media — is that Ai is a hack who relishes in concocting headline-grabbing PR stunts with questionable artistic merit: whether it’s viral video spoofs, magazine covers, or wry photographs, Ai can do no right. Even the sheer mention of his name by visiting public figures results in withering public scorn.

These people, who endlessly criticize without creating anything of value themselves, also lambaste him for his role as the international media’s go-to guy for quotes on Chinese current events, a gilded position that many argue oversimplifies the complex problems the country faces and feeds lazy Western journalists a distorted narrative of modern China.

And the authorities, lest we forget, remain uncomfortable with Ai’s post-Olympic role as an international celebrity activist calling for the state to rectify its human rights abuses. They continue to assail him with a gauntlet of questionable legal challenges, from accusations of economic malfeasance to crimes against morality, and hold his passport. Ai’s not technically under house arrest, but usually he’s not given much reason to leave his Caochangdi compound.

Saint Ai, the Musician

Zuoxiao Zuzhou has impeccable credentials in the country’s music scene — he’s a well-respected founding father who helped popularize avant-garde rock music in the early-1990s with his band No — so it’s somewhat a musical coup for Ai’s team that Zuoxiao would agree to produce and write the music for The Divine Comedy.

But after listening to the record several times, I still wonder what Ai’s and Zuoxiao’s goals were. If it’s just two friends working together to explore a new creative medium, then we have a success. As a platform for catharsis, working through grueling psychological issues from detention, it’s pretty good. And as a vessel from which to reach a new audience — say, Zuoxiao fans who don’t care about politics — it also works, and I hope that some of Ai’s starpower will rub off on the country’s rock scene and lead to positive developments for everyone involved.

But if Ai intended The Divine Comedy to be a groundbreaking musical statement that rivals what the country’s all-star musical talent has been doing for the past decade, then… maybe not. Domestic acts like Duck Fight Goose, Hedgehog, Carsick Cars, and PK-14 — four rock bands I consider to be the country’s most durable and influential — have him easily beat.

And guess what? That’s okay. I don’t think this record is an attempt to steer national discussion. “Each song is a different take of Ai’s newfound channel for expression through music,” the press release for The Divine Comedy helpfully states, before explaining that the album’s songs fall into three categories: commentaries on current events, documentations of real dialogues, and personal reflections. Aside from a modest two-sentence bio (“Ai Weiwei is an artist and his work encompasses diverse fields including fine art, curating, architecture, design and social criticism. He is a fierce defender of freedom of expression and is always seeking new ways to communicate with the public”) and logistical information as to where to purchase the record — his website, iTunes, and all major online music retailers, in case you’re interested — there’s nothing else.

No weighty proclamations or celebrity endorsements or saucy pull quotes or a multipage hagiography or multimedia ad campaigns, but rather a standard, even minimalist press release announcing to the world that Saint Ai the Creator has given birth to another new artistic thing.

Many domestic pop culture critics will undoubtedly feel frustrated that this record will be the most covered rock music to come out of mainland China this year. While that may be true, it’s predicated on a logical fallacy: Ai can’t be blamed that this country’s independent record labels — the companies who have the economic resources and cultural influence to disseminate this music to Western audiences — tend to be mismanaged, short-sighted, and engage in virtually zero international outreach.

And while the country has no shortage of dedicated participants involved in the music biz — musicians, promoters, writers, venue managers, bloggers, DIY labels, retailers, graphic designers, and other starry-eyed idealists — the overwhelming majority of them don’t have the resources to promote this bubbling cauldron of creativity outside of the country, which is where you need to focus your attention if you want any influential press coverage that’ll generate sustained international interest in your band of choice.

Maybe Ai can help with that.

The record’s opening track, “Just Climb the Wall,” was surprising: I didn’t expect to hear that distinctive spoken-word snarl overlaid upon a swirling, swing-influenced stomp with bold, declarative piano tones clashing in the background like ivory thunderclaps, equal parts Nick Cave and lonesome urban cowboy.

While the follow-up, “Chaoyang Park,” sounds somewhat dated — those distorted guitar power chords ascending into a dissonant cloud-fuzz have been rendered perhaps a bit too close to Nine Inch Nails’s Broken for critical comfort — it does provide a suitably disorienting environment for the harsh subject matter that lyrically constitutes much of the record:

Are you still following me? I won’t do it anymore
Tell me, what’s your name? Beat me and I won’t tell
Give my cell phone back. Delete those pictures now
I have a wife and a child too. I can’t remember their phone numbers.

I think it’s easy to forget in the wake of Ai’s well-publicized brushes with the law that most musicians in this country shy away from weighty subject matter in their songs — even those in this country’s punk rock scene are guilty of utilizing formulaic flag-waving lyrical bullshit because they’re unwilling to wrap their liberty-spiked heads around anything specific — so it’s nice to hear an outsider not only mentioning the elephant in the room, but tackling it and wrestling it to the ground and trying to yank out its tusks.

And while the muddy, churning mid-tempo sediment of “Laoma Tihua” — a song that appears to recall Ai’s ill-fated trip to Chengdu to attend Tan Zuoren’s trial — was initially a sleeper, repeated listens dredge more interesting stuff up to the surface — nuanced flourishes, like silverfish darting between the reeds as ghouls shriek overhead — and drag it downstream before the current quickly corrects itself with “Hotel USA,” the closest thing on the record to a veritable road banger, a hypnotic effort laced with smoky harmonica curls and druggy campfire chanting.

This song, the first of two arranged by guitarist Zhang Zhe, flows effortlessly, perhaps to a fault, into “Give Tomorrow Back to Me,” an autopiloted ballad that eventually reaches liftoff when Zuoxiao steps in to handle the chorus: this interwoven forlorn crooning cradled in accordion whorls, guitar fills and the almost perceptible swirls of marijuana smoke makes it a contender for one of the best domestic rock songs that I’ve heard this year.

So despite those minor flaws — namely the sequencing, the unsteady pace and the juvenile lyrical content of “Dumbass,” which leaves the listener with a metallic taste in the mouth (which could have been Ai’s intention) – The Divine Comedy never sounds self-indulgent or narcissistic: it’s surprisingly muted and tightly controlled. Perhaps Ai Weiwei and Zuoxiao Zuzhou accomplished exactly what they wanted, whatever that may have been.

The Divine Comedy will be available tomorrow, the two-year anniversary of Ai Weiwei’s release from detention. Pete DeMola is a writer and creative consultant in Hong Kong. He tweets @pmdemola.

CORRECTION, 6/22, 8:03 am: Two corrections have been appended. First, Zhu Yu’s piece on cannibalism was not shown in Ai Weiwei’s exhibit as previously stated. Second, due to an editing error, we misidentified the exhibition that featured Ai’s pictures of himself smashing Han Dynasty urns. We regret the errors.

10 Responses to “Saint Ai, The Musician: The Divine Comedy, Reviewed”

  1. name

    OK, it is clear you know nothing about Chinese contemporary art.

    1) Zhu Yu’s Eating People was a private performance and pictures were meant to be exposed in an exhibition co-curated by Ai Weiwei. However, Ai decided with Zhu not to include the pictures in the exhibit and they were not shown.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zhu_Yu_%28artist%29#Significant_Works

    2) Fuck Off was the English title of the exhibition, which took place in 2000 in Shanghai as alternative event to the Shanghai Biennale. The work you cite is called Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, and is dated 1995.

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/culturepicturegalleries/8004485/Ai-Weiwei-and-The-Unilever-Series.html

    3) You say he’s an artist and he is supposed to create… Well, he is present at the Venice Biennale this year with 3 works, Straight, SACRED (Disposition 1 and 2), and Bang (German pavillon). Have you seen them? I have.

    http://www.designboom.com/art/ai-weiwei-straightens-150-tons-of-steel-rebar-from-sichuan-quake/

    Having said that, the songs suck. No surprise from somebody who once declared that he even doesn’t listen to music.

    But this doesn’t change the fact that you’re out of your depth when writing about art. And you know, you are writing about an artist.

    Reply
    • P.

      Thanks for your comments:

      1.) Doesn’t matter, the point remains the same — Ai co-curated an exhibit featuring Zhu Yu’s work. The fact that it was pulled at the last minute is irrelevant because the intent remains unchanged;

      2.) You’re right: They were two different exhibitions. The conflation of the exhibits wasn’t included in the original submission, which was much longer and pared down by BJC’s in-house editorial staff. We’ll get better at ensuring better communication exists between the contributors and the editorial department.

      3.) Okay. Again: What’s your point?

      Reply
  2. Jonathan Alpart

    Great article, Pete. You’ve really summed up the Ai Weiwei situation quite well.

    I especially liked your point about how Chinese indie record labels do a lot more harm to themselves than Ai has by stealing the spotlight. That is absolutely dead-on, and it remains a mystery to me how they continue to be so incompetent in getting the world interested in something that should be a piece of cake. Rock music in and of itself suggests rebellion (whether or not it actually does), and should serve as a panacea to the “gray-colored dystopia rife with baby-aborting drones and entire cities of enslaved assembly-line workers.” Perhaps the reason why Chinese rock hasn’t taken off abroad is precisely because this image remains so steadfast in people’s minds.

    I believe though that your main point (if I understand it), that the record is forgivable – even good – is way off. The fact remains that if it were any other artist, it would be shelved and that would be the end of it. But here you have written many, many words about something whose sole existence is to be written about for the fact that it exists.

    “These people, who endlessly criticize without creating anything of value themselves”

    Was that really neccesary? That’s not true, nor fair. Plus, don’t you contradict yourself when you later say:

    “And while the country has no shortage of dedicated participants involved in the music biz — musicians, promoters, writers, venue managers, bloggers, DIY labels, retailers, graphic designers, and other starry-eyed idealists”

    Sounds like quite a bit of value being created to me.

    Reply
    • P.

      Thanks for your comments. “These people, who endlessly criticize without creating anything of value themselves” doesn’t refer to participants in the creative community, but rather to Ai’s online critics who don’t create anything at all — not the hardworking folks who occasionally toss a intelligent barb his way.

      Reply
  3. MrY

    “We’re talking about the guy who worked with a Swiss design firm in creating the modern-day symbol of an ascendant China, the Bird’s Nest,”

    Actually, no. He begged to be involved, contributed garbage that was ignored, and then tried to claim credit for something. He’s a joke.

    He was a complete and total joke in the US, came to China and did fun things like tax fraud to make a name for himself. He’s a talentless hack and nothing more.

    Reply
  4. Gregorio

    As previously remarked, all the blabber about Chinese art is plain bullshit as an attempt to counter the expat opinion on AWW (that 3 years ago was exactly the opposite like omg AWW is a god, best Chinese artist and so on). Now people sort of understood his stunts and you’re trying to be the smart guy saying that there’s a depth in him that cynical expats don’t get. Because at least he creates – wait, what? What the fuck does “Ai’s online critics who don’t create anything at all” mean? How do you know who creates and who doesn’t, and how can you even assume that creating something is a priori better than not? Did you read too much Ayn Rand? Are you American? Oh wait yeah.

    Anyway: AWW does horrid art, he does not create. You didn’t get it because you don’t understand art. AWW does horrible music as well. and thanks god people understand music better than art, so hopefully he will be worshipped a bit less. Please stop this kind of rehabilitation of the unrehabilitablable.

    Reply
  5. Jeroen Groenewegen-Lau

    I made the following remarks when this piece appeared on the MCLC list and wanted to give Mr DeMola an opportunity to respond.
    (https://lists.service.ohio-state.edu/pipermail/mclc/2013-June/001959.html)

    “Saint Ai, The Musician: The Divine Comedy, Reviewed” deliberately overstates its case in order to get attention. What I do take issue with are his derision of China’s independent music labels (“mismanaged, short-sighted, and engage in virtually zero international outreach”) and musicians (“even those in this country’s punk rock scene are guilty of utilizing formulaic flag-waving lyrical bullshit because they’re unwilling to wrap their liberty-spiked heads around anything specific”). Worse than these things simply being not true, they suggest that the standards of good music are having success in the West and being political outspoken in the most crude way. “Maybe Ai can help with that,” writes Pete DeMola. I hope not.

    The bands that DeMola “consider[s] to be the country’s most durable and influential”, namely Duck Fight Goose, Hedgehog, Carsick Cars, and PK-14, further testify to his Anglocentrism, literally in about half of the songs of these bands. These are great bands (I especially like PK14), at the same time there’s more to rock in the PRC than Maybe Mars (incidentally, that DeMola knows these bands is a sign of this label’s international outreach). Hanggai is an example of a Beijing-based band with prolonged international success, but maybe that doesn’t count because they are Mongolian-themed and not New Wave but World Music…?

    Then about Zuoxiao Zuzhou. I wouldn’t call him “a well-respected founding father who helped popularize avant-garde rock music in the early-1990s”. As far as I know Zuoxiao became successful around 2008 because of a relatively more mainstream sound (I like his 2009 album Big Deal 《大事》 best), but also because of his outspokenness on microblogs and by association with Ai Weiwei.

    Zuoxiao Zuzhou and Ai Weiwei started working together when they both lived in the East Village in Beijing in the mid-1990s. Zuoxiao used Ai’s artwork as cover art of his first solo album in 2001 (Zuoxiao Zuzhou at Di’anmen 《左小祖咒在地安门》 ). Zuoxiao was with Ai when he was injured by the police in Chengdu and composed all the music for the documentaries that Ai Weiwei made. Divine Comedy seems to be a natural next step in their collaboration.

    As far as I can judge on the basis of the one song that I’ve heard, the album also fits Zuoxiao’s musical development, which, as I have argued elsewhere (http://norient.com/academic/groenewegen2011/), moves from sincere avant-garde through somewhat detached ‘musical commentary’ towards the clownesque. Zuoxiao’s recent talk at Berkeley is a good example of how Zuoxiao Zuzhou is sometimes deliberately superficial, silly and 无厘头 and sometimes critical by suggesting depth behind his parody (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=naJ4ZZbxZ2c). The video also shows some of the challenges this poses to well-meaning translators and event organizers, who in their attempt to invest the institution with prestige and decency water down Zuoxiao’s “pissing against the idealist wind” somewhat.

    Reply
    • P.

      While I appreciate your thoughtful and well-written comments, you may be guilty of misrepresenting my arguments:

      I mentioned four bands as being influential and durable — DFG, Carsick Cars, Hedgehog, PK-14 — and posited that since they write great rock songs and don’t set out to be political activists, then we have to judge AWW by that same framework:

      Since he isn’t setting out to write great rock songs, then the record can’t be compared to their output.

      Not sure what Hanggai has to do with any of that.

      I know of the aforementioned bands, by the way, not due to record label involvement, but rather because I’ve seen them all grow up and flourish since moving to the country in 2005 several years some of these record labels even existed.

      I mention the mismanagement of record labels only to illustrate that it if the AWW record *does* manage to generate the most publicity of any record this year, blame the indies for not having better international outreach — not AWW.

      If the labels had staffers, even part-timers, sending press kits to the influential English-language music world in order to review their records, then more media outlets would be reviewing their output because this is the primary way in which they’d be aware of this music in the first place.

      But since this isn’t happening — and the Western music press is giddy about Chinese content whenever I talk with them and usually ask for more information — I really have to question how they run their PR departments.

      Thanks again for your comments.

      Reply
  6. SeaHorse

    Ai is a headline grabbing hog, I still contend I quite like some of his pieces. And Ai Wei Wei is right about things like the Beijing Olympics and Shanghai Expo, those buildings don’t represent Chinese architecture in reality but what we want the world to view Chinese culture as. They’re empty and defunct, they were constructed with a purpose other than being a facade to project ‘Chinese-ness.’ Ai’s workings with traditional wooden carpentry to create a map of China and the production of his Sunflower Seeds piece are better legacy to Chinese craftsmanship.

    Though to be honest, his actual works in question that are to my taste aren’t exactly political. I wonder if all the people defending his freedom actually have an interest in his Sino-centric art that doesn’t have to do with politics.

    If the CPC didn’t pick a fight with him they wouldn’t have a fight with him. People in China make ‘interesting’ art pieces all the time, the difference is Ai speaks English so the CPC takes offense and the western world kowtows to his outbursts.

    Reply

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