Monday, April 11, 2011

Bob Dylan plays Beijing and Shanghai, but not for Ai Weiwei

Bob Dylan, 70-year old veteran troubadour, played Beijing and Shanghai in early April. It was his first visit to the country and went without hitch following the cancellation of a tour originally planned for last year. While audience reviews by expats and locals were overwhelmingly positive, Western print media in particular engaged in an orgy of punning around the titles of some of his best-known songs from his early days, like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times, They Are A-Changin’”. The problem as they saw it was that Dylan had sold out by not dedicating a song to, or making comment about, Ai Weiwei, a so-called dissident artist who was arrested shortly before Dylan’s arrival in China. The accusation largely reflects the ignorance about Dylan’s long-time rejection of labels such as “spokesman of a generation” and “protest singer”. Such ignorance looks for a politics that can be reduced to a five word slogan held on a placard. Far from selling out, Dylan kept true to himself and played a set list that was consistent with what he’s been doing around the world recently. It included “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, “Desolation Row”, “Ballad of a Thin Man”, “Highway 61 Revisited” and arguably his most political song (although it depends on your own interpretation), “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”. But who is this Ai Weiwei that Dylan is accused of betraying? Ai Weiwei, 53, is the son of Ai Qing, a poet whose repudiation of the dictatorship of Chiang Kai-shek) led him to change his surname from Jiang (i.e. the pinyin form of Chiang) to Ai in the early 1930s. He was imprisoned by Chiang Kai-shek, but also sent into exile on state farms in the northeast and in Xinjiang from 1958 to 1975. Ai Qing was a revolutionary and a patriot. Here is his 1938 poem, “I Love This Land”: If I were a bird, I would sing with my hoarse voice Of this land buffeted by storms, Of this river turbulent with our grief, Of these angry winds ceaselessly blowing, And of the dawn, infinitely gentle over the woods… - Then I would die And even my feathers would rot in the soil. Why are my eyes always brimming with tears? Because I love this land so deeply… According to the New York Times, Ai Weiwei “takes the role of China’s conscience”. The LA Times and The Economist tried to boost his prestige by incorrectly describing him as the designer of the “Bird’s Nest” stadium built for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. He was a minor consultant to the architects but his ideas were not used. Ai Weiwei left for the US in 1981. He was expelled from a New York design school for chronic absenteeism in 1983 and became an illegal immigrant, gaining a US Green Card when his profile as a “dissident” associated with the downtown art world in New York grew. He returned to China in 1994 and embedded himself in the avant-garde “artists’ village” on the outskirts of Beijing. Ai Weiwei’s “art” would probably seem old hat to anyone familiar with the filth and vomit of the punk era of Western pop music, but for those who were not exposed, be warned that the following passages contain adult themes…. In 2000 during the Shanghai Bienniale Ai Weiwei was co-curator of a show called “F*** Off” which included photos of his upraised middle finger pointed at Tiananmen Square, and an exhibit that purported to show the bodies of two dead babies. For China’s 60th Anniversary in 2009 he launched a video of himself and various others standing in front of a white board with the handwritten characters “grass-mud-horse, motherland” in the background. In Chinese, the words “grass-mud-horse” are homonyms for “F*** your mother”. The phrase, or a close variant, is repeated monotonously by each of the eight people including an aggressive-looking young white American male. Ai Weiwei utters a phrase that says, somewhat impolitely, what he has done to his motherland’s genitals. Such is the “art” of the man who “takes the role of China’s conscience”. He was not arrested in relation to this role, or at least, the charges do not refer to it. He was arrested in relation to financial irregularities involving a Shanghai art studio. Dylan may or may not have heard of him. Her may or may not like his ideas. But he is not a spokesman for US imperialism and does not have to arrange his set lists to serve causes that the US government espouses.