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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dylan made this comment on May 13:

To my fans and followers. Allow me to clarify a couple of things about this so-called China controversy which has been going on for over a year. First of all, we were never denied permission to play in China. This was all drummed up by a Chinese promoter who was trying to get me to come there after playing Japan and Korea. My guess is that the guy printed up tickets and made promises to certain groups without any agreements being made. We had no intention of playing China at that time, and when it didn't happen most likely the promoter had to save face by issuing statements that the Chinese Ministry had refused permission for me to play there to get himself off the hook. If anybody had bothered to check with the Chinese authorities, it would have been clear that the Chinese authorities were unaware of the whole thing.

We did go there this year under a different promoter. According to Mojo magazine the concerts were attended mostly by ex-pats and there were a lot of empty seats. Not true. If anybody wants to check with any of the concert-goers they will see that it was mostly Chinese young people that came. Very few ex-pats if any. The ex-pats were mostly in Hong Kong not Beijing. Out of 13,000 seats we sold about 12,000 of them, and the rest of the tickets were given away to orphanages. The Chinese press did tout me as a sixties icon, however, and posted my picture all over the place with Joan Baez, Che Guevara, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. The concert attendees probably wouldn't have known about any of those people. Regardless, they responded enthusiastically to the songs on my last 4 or 5 records. Ask anyone who was there. They were young and my feeling was that they wouldn't have known my early songs anyway.

As far as censorship goes, the Chinese government had asked for the names of the songs that I would be playing. There's no logical answer to that, so we sent them the set lists from the previous 3 months. If there were any songs, verses or lines censored, nobody ever told me about it and we played all the songs that we intended to play.

Everybody knows by now that there's a gazillion books on me either out or coming out in the near future. So I'm encouraging anybody who's ever met me, heard me or even seen me, to get in on the action and scribble their own book. You never know, somebody might have a great book in them.