Posts Tagged ‘censorship’

Ai Weiwei/艾未未 Marches On – Portraits for Foreign Policy

Ai Weiwei poses for a portrait with one of his cats in his studio compound.

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of visiting Ai Weiwei in his studio to take portraits for Foreign Policy’s Top 100 Global Thinkers list where he appeared at #18 in the rankings. He was very amiable and open to me directing him about his compound where I posed him with some of his favorite cats. Ai Weiwei is all over the news again. After a short period of silence following an 81-day incarceration, he continues to lash out at authorities and decry the trumped-up charges of tax evasion brought against him in an attempt to silence his outspoken criticisms. A recent Newsweek piece he penned where he related Beijing to a “nightmare” was especially noteworthy. This renewed vigor and boldness seem in large part due to the outpouring of support shown by anonymous Chinese donors who rallied behind him to raise $1.4 million to challenge his huge tax bill which he refers to as ransom money. Other admirers are finding more brazen outlets to show support by posting nude photos of themselves online in defense of other spurious pornography charges brought against Ai Weiwei for a set of revealing self portraits released on the Internet. To make things even more controversial, high profile figures are weighing in on the situation, including Taiwan’s president Ma Ying-jeou who visited his current exhibition at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum. It’s all quite a mess, but I am sure Ai Weiwei is pleased with himself for creating an even larger fuss than before his arrest – another great case of censorship backfiring in the face of the Chinese state.

In a crazy sense I think the political space in China has truly transformed Ai Weiwei’s life into an interdisciplinary work of art or a “social performance” as he calls it. His invocation of the Chinese state’s ire came through a combination of critical sculptures, writings, photographs, videos and installations. While these separate pieces might not be interdisciplinary in nature, they have brought about a dynamic where every action or utterance of Ai Weiwei becomes performative in nature and open to intense analysis by journalists, officials, police and, increasingly so, the general public. His identity remains at the center and activates all of these mediums of expression, especially through the Internet which exponentially magnifies his impact. In a statistical sense, Ai Weiwei is not well known in China. Still, he is making waves where it counts and China’s intelligentsia is taking note. These are the people fashioning the new China, and his stand against censorship and political suppression is singular. By tapping into a populist sentiment with his donation drive, he is putting officials even more on edge. It’s a very crucial moment for Ai Weiwei right now. There is still a very distinct possibility he might disappear again.

In other Ai Weiwei news, my friend Alison Klayman’s documentary, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, is set to premiere at the Sundance Festival in January. Check out the trailer and her appearance on the Colbert Report. It is very timely and should be a great film.

Ai Weiwei poses for a portrait in his studio compound.

Ai Weiwei poses for a portrait with one of his cats in his studio compound.Ai Weiwei poses for a portrait in his studio compound.Ai Weiwei poses for a portrait in his studio compound.

Ai Weiwei poses for a portrait in his studio compound.Ai Weiwei poses for a portrait in his studio compound.Ai Weiwei poses for a portrait in his studio compound.

Ai Weiwei poses for Foreign Policy's Top 100 Global Thinkers

    Screaming into the Void: Demerit on Tour

    Spike gets the crowd fired up in Chengdu

    “why the fuck am i loyal to you / we don’t wanna be your victim of greed
    sick of you, no future for us / how many people die in famine”

    The Changsha concert was the sixth in Demerit’s Bastards of the Nation Tour, and they powered through a set of gutter punk decked out in tattered t-shirts, AK-47 bullet belts and bondage pants. Responding in kind, the crowd at 4698 Bar tore around the room in an act of mayhem rarely realized outside the smoky confines of underground music clubs across China. Meanwhile, across town on the former grounds of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Committee in Changsha, stood one of the most famous statues of Mao in China. With his steel arm raised to the sky, the Great Helmsman beckoned the recently founded republic into a new era. Little did he know that only thirty years after his death another wave of rebellious youth, sporting towering mohawks instead of Mao caps, would be decrying his egalitarian fantasy.

    While punk in China might be old news, young hardcore bands like Demerit are breathing new life into the scene with incisive lyrics in songs like “Fight Your Apathy” and their latest album’s namesake “Bastards of the Nation.” Both call for an end to political cronyism and lambaste the mindless consumer frenzy gripping China’s youth. Touring outside of government controlled media channels, Demerit brings a nonconformist message to China’s disaffected masses. They play for the downtrodden and those still mired in poverty despite an infusion of rampant, free-market policies into the CCP’s quasi-socialist economics. Rabble-rousing within a muted population largely resigned to government control is an uphill struggle, but Demerit is on a campaign against passivity and compliance.

    Liuliu pounds on his base at Logo Bar in ShanghaiSpike jumps off the stage at Yuyintang in Shanghai

    “send me to work, send me to war / send me to waste my life for you
    hate for you, no future for us / we are just bastards of the nation”

    The Bastards of the Nation Tour became an important medium for communication when Demerit’s lyrics were censored from their album liner notes earlier this year. All of the music publishing houses in China are state owned and refused to condone such incendiary material, especially leading up to the Olympics. In the end, Demerit could only publish them in English. This awkward concession limited Demerit’s access to new audiences and forced them to take their message to limited-communication Internet forums and directly to the people on tour. There is not much else they could do. While telling an authoritarian government to fuck off certainly bolsters your status in the punk world, China is still a place where voices are silenced daily. Demerit might not have garnered enough momentum for an outright crackdown, but the CCP continues to slowly gag deviant voices amongst the masses. Demerit could easily be muzzled if one piqued official decided to veto their privilege to release new CDs or perform concerts.

    Touring in China is by no means a joyride. Long train journeys at odd hours, shabby lodging, and a constant diet of noodles and beer are some of the highlights. Getting paid concert by concert also makes things tight. Still, Demerit prides itself on interacting directly with their fans whether it is a concert for eight in a backwater provincial dive or a few hundred in a music-crazy urban center. Luckily there is a growing network of underground bars and clubs in Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing, Xian, Wuhan, Guangzhou and Chengdu that promote alternative music in the face of an increasingly pop-dominated market. The 4698 Bar back in Changsha recently became another mainstay for traveling bands and is managed by a group of tattooed entrepreneurs who play in their own punk outfit Last Choice. This nascent tour circuit is turning heads both domestically and internationally and will hopefully provide an established framework for up and coming bands to find audiences in a country renowned for its draconian media control.

    “so fuck your pretty thoughts / we don’t care about your perfect plans
    so fuck your pretty thoughts / we still have rebel attitude”

    The network of clubs also weaves through some of the most intensely developed urban centers in the world. Cities pop up almost overnight across China’s interior. Touted as an “economic miracle,” this vision of modernity spreading throughout China lines select pockets richly, but continues to leave a great number of people out on the curb – grappling with a population of 1.4 billion is no easy feat. Migrant workers from the countryside, the true force behind China’s construction boom, usually can’t afford a residence in municipalities built with their own hands. Demerit thrives off the growing dissatisfaction of people passed over in China’s newfangled Great Leap Forward. Concert goers lose themselves in music that transcends the shallow nationalism that so often defers legitimate criticism of the CCP. Demerit’s hard-hitting punk is one of the most explosive fissures in China’s music underground and will continue to resonate for some time to come.

    In an almost anachronistic throwback, Demerit opens their new album with the end of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech dubbed over a rousing drum line: “I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.” While Martin Luther King’s mission to end segregation and bigotry is seemingly disconnected from the travails of modern China, Demerit’s intent is clear. They want to stand for suppressed voices of a new generation who grew up with little future prospects and no hope to bridge the ever widening gap between the rich and the poor in China. This isn’t the fringe of China, either. Hundreds of millions of Chinese still live largely agrarian existences and will continue to go unspoken for well into this new century. China is sweltering in the heat of oppression and Demerit, at the very least, continues to vent some it at every concert.

    All lyrics taken from the song Bastards of the Nation.

    Li poses in front of a billboard in Nanjing

      All content © 2014 to Matthew Niederhauser