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Ai Weiwei rocks out against detention

By Alexis Lai, CNN
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Sun May 26, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Chinese artist-activist Ai Weiwei releases heavy metal song, music video inspired by government detention
  • Music video recreates Ai's ordeal in jail, with expletive-laden lyrics denouncing government repression
  • Ai Weiwei also debuted art installation in Hong Kong on hot-button, cross-border issue on milk formula
  • Ai Weiwei will release music album next month

Hong Kong (CNN) -- Ai Weiwei is at it again. This time, the controversial Chinese artist-activist has taken his first venture into music, releasing a heavy metal single and music video inspired by his harrowing detention by the government two years ago.

A perpetual thorn in the Chinese government's side, Ai, whose projects have spanned art installations, film, photography, writing, and architecture, was en route to Hong Kong in April 2011 when he was taken into custody at Beijing's international airport.

He was detained for 81 days amid a government crackdown on political activists, widely believed to stem from government fears of a potential uprising inspired by the Arab Spring. Upon his release, Ai was subjected to severe restrictions on his movements and later accused of tax evasion -- charges which he rejected and unsuccessfully challenged in court.

Entitled "Dumbass," the five-minute music video features the burly, bearded artist recreating his time in jail to expletive-laden lyrics denouncing government repression.

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"The idea (for this song) first came to me while I was in detention and the guards watching me quietly inquired if I could sing," Ai told CNN. "That was when I realized that both the guards and I were being detained; in their three years in the army, they had never been allowed to leave this place."

"For young people around the ages of 19-20, music can spark their imagination and passion, and this small incident moved me. After I was released, I thought I should write my own song," he added.

Ai penned the lyrics to "Dumbass," while rock musician Zuoxiao Zuzhou composed the music and Australia's Christopher Doyle directed the video's cinematography.

Ai said the dark visuals, from the artist being taken into jail with a black hood to being perpetually accompanied by two guards while eating, sleeping, and using the bathroom, mirrored his ordeal.

Some of his jabs at government repression in the video materialize in defiant fantastical elements, such as the river crabs scampering over the toilet ("hexie" is a pun for "harmonization" -- a government euphemism for societal repression) and the horse sitting in for the artist bound to a chair ("caonima" is a pun for cursing someone's mother).

Ai said the "dumbasses" and "f**kers" he denounced in his lyrics also refer to scholars and intellectuals in China who "don't have a clear understanding of China. Despite going through so many disasters, they are still deluded. I find this ridiculous."

In one scene, the artist's head is shaved by a child -- a reference to his then two-year-old son whom Ai said he constantly thought of during his detention and whom he feared would no longer recognize him by the time he was released.

He said the song may help him overcome the trauma of his detention, which he described as "extremely difficult." At the same time, he said he has no regrets over his actions, believing that people have a responsibility to bring hope and warmth into the world -- and that as an artist, he has certain platforms of expression that he should use to this end.

"Many people are still imprisoned, many for much longer (than me) because we all expressed a difference of opinion and were accused of incitement to subvert state power," he added. "So I have to speak out for them."

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"Milk Formula", 2013.
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"Milk Formula", 2013. (close-up)

Meanwhile, the artist addressed another pressing problem in China -- mainland Chinese, spooked by a scandal over melamine-tainted baby milk formula, have snapped up tins in Hong Kong, leading to a public outcry over the resulting shortage and the institution of a two-can (1.8 kg) cross-border limit in March by the city's authorities.

"Milk Formula" debuted at a Hong Kong exhibition Friday -- a 10 meter by 8 meter map of China created with 1,815 tins of various brands of baby formula.

"Although China's economy is developing, China's food products and the environment have already been completely sacrificed because of deteriorating ethics," Ai said. He described the situation of people needing to seek milk formula outside their own country to feed their children as "absurd."

While Ai professed no solutions, saying that the purpose of art is raise questions, he said the problem of milk formula should be resolved by the people rather than through harsh legal measures. "It shows that the 'one country, two systems' [policy] is extremely contradictory and difficult to coordinate," he added.

"Dumbass" is one of six songs on the topic of Ai's detention -- the rest will be released next month as part of an album based on his personal experiences.

CNN's Beijing bureau contributed reporting.

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