Ai Weiwei: Activist, Artist, Protest Singer

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The grinding heavy metal riffs of Ai Weiwei’s debut single echo an even more unsettling sound—that of brick being crushed to dust.

The infamous Chinese dissident may indeed be delving into a new medium, (his first album, The Divine Comedy, was released on June 22, led by the hard-hitting single “Dumbass”). But it’s far from the first twist in this artistic activist’s narrative. One of the most noticeable turns in that ever-thickening plot occurred in 2011, when authorities demolished his Shanghai studio art gallery. Many supporters saw the razzing as a rebuttal to Ai’s numerous government critiques and human rights pleas in the international press. But his greatest ally and dear friend, Zuoxiao Zuzhou, could relate on a more visceral level, having sung protest songs against those PRC bulldozers for years as they lumbered closer to his family’s village in Jiangsu province—a region deemed ripe for urban development.

“Tearing down dissidents’ buildings has been a very essential policy in China for the past 20 years, and probably for the next 20 years,” Ai says during a scorching hot late June afternoon at his studio in Beijing’s northeastern outskirts. He’s wearing a plain green shirt and brown slacks, and his hair is cropped to a bristly stubble. During our sit-down he never crosses his legs, instead planting his feet firmly shoulder-width apart while leaning forward in his chair. His voice is soft, but his phrases are lean and direct, lacking the flowery language that one might expect from a world-renowned artist. It all adds up to the look of a man drafted into an endless boot camp, as he further described the government’s punitive demolitions: “The state is selling the property to everybody, and many of us only get temporary ownership. So they can tear it down anytime they like, and there’s no legal action we can take. It makes me feel terrible.”

That threat of destroyed property is just one of many ties that Ai and Zuoxiao share. In fact, their lives seem to have overlapped in constant ways over the course of their 20 year friendship. But The Divine Comedy is the first project that both of these vastly different artists have collaborated on so extensively. Ai writes and sings all the lyrics, but Zuoxiao is the one providing a sonic canvass comprised of clanking drums, wailing industrial synths and ferociously gnashing guitars.

Zuoxiao is wearing a crisp, white t-shirt and a brown fedora. Throughout our interview he pets one of Ai’s napping cats and nibbles on the veggies that his friend has placed on the table. But the songwriter’s facial expressions aren’t nearly so gentle, his eyebrows arching as he keeps persistent eye contact in a hawkish stare.

“It’s a very barbaric and sad album. I told him ‘If anyone should be a punk singer, it’s you,’” Zuoxiao says of how he encouraged Ai to record an album. But he was shocked to hear that his friend sounded nothing like the thoughtful philosopher one might expect. Zuoxiao adds: “People will really see his angry side on this album.”

That anger gushed out of Ai long after his nastiest encounter with the authorities. It was worse than the razzing of his property, the scuffles he’s had with police, or the constant censorship he faces in the Chinese media. Above all that, Ai says his most harrowing hardship occurred in April 2011, when he was arrested before boarding a plane to Hong Kong. His release didn’t come until that June. In those months his family and friends had no way of knowing if they’d ever see him again.

But as he was sealed inside those walls, Ai truly unleashed his voice for the very first time. It started out simply enough, with one of the guards asking him to sing a song to break the monotony. Ai insists the officer wasn’t mocking him, adding: “The soldiers also face a difficult situation, and they can’t bear it. I’m not angry with them; they have to follow orders. They don’t know what they are doing. It was a sign of humanity, for him to ask to hear a song.”

From then on, he grew determined to make more use of his voice. After his release, and after a bit of prodding from Zuoxiao, Ai entered the studio and stepped up to the microphone.

“That’s the fist time I heard my voice so clearly. I could hear all the mistakes, it was like seeing a child start to walk,” he says, adding that some critics will likely nitpick these initial, infantile musical attempts. “To do it you need guts, you need the will, and you need sensitivity. Of course, you also need a good friend like Zuoxiao, who is willing to hold my hand and walk with me for a few steps.”

In fact, Zuoxiao has stood by Ai’s side for quite some time. The two visit each other so frequently that the musician witnessed the bulldozing of Ai’s Shanghai studio, and the artist’s scuffles with the police. But he can also relate to Ai’s trials on a more convoluted level. Zuoxiao had once worn a uniform, for instance, which was not unlike that of his friend’s would-be captors.

“I had to, I didn’t have any food,” Zuoxiao says of the poverty that lead to his five-year stint in the army as a teen. He craved stability, but quickly hated the military’s rigidity. “If I wanted a couple of days leave to go home and see my parents, then I had to give my superior cigarettes and liquor. And then, when I returned, I’d have to give my superior something from my hometown.”

“It happened all the time, because officers are really poor,” Zuoxiao continues, before adding that filing into those ranks felt like a prison. “But at least I could still see the sun then.”

It didn’t take long for Zuoxiao’s post-military career to draw ire from his former fellow officers. He made his way to Beijing with dreams of becoming a musician. While wandering around the capital’s low-rent East Village he bumped into Ai Weiwei, the son of a poet named Ai Qing who’d been exiled for his inflammatory writings in the lead-up to the cultural revolution. Ai Weiwei was hoping to band fellow bohemians together and turn the haggard East Village into an artist’s colony. During that time he often supported Zuoxiao in every sense of the word—lending him money and encouraging his raspy singing style and subversive lyrics.

Zuoxiao became an underground sensation in the 1990s, drawing comparisons to Leonard Cohen for his haunting vocals and biting lyrics—the latter of which touched on everything from China’s subpar food safety standards to the demolition crews that might level his family’s home. The authorities, with whom he used to march with, eventually closed in and arrested him for those protest tunes. But not a single charge was laid.

“They wouldn’t tell me the reason why they captured me. I waited in a cell for 20 days for a trial, but it never came. Then they suddenly released me. There was no explanation whatsoever, no official paper.”

And yet, Ai didn’t seek Zuoxiao’s council after being released from his own, much more recent, detention.

“He was locked up for 81 days, he had a lot of trauma inside, but he will not say much about it,” Zuoxiao says, adding that the two friends soon found a better outlet. “Ai can only express his feelings about prison in his singing. I think that’s the difference between music and contemporary art—with music, it’s easier to let people into some kind of emotion. “

Their defiance in the face of oppression, and the candor they convey through their art, have garnered Ai and Zuoxiao many fans from abroad and within the Chinese underground scenes. But not everyone is so enthralled by these two outspoken activists. Some critics have lashed out at Zuoxiao for putting an $80 price tag on his breakthrough 2008 album You Know Where the East Is. But he insists that his songs are a work of art, a collector’s item, with more textures than any pristine gallery piece. He adds that fans can download his music for free online, and that his live shows aren’t expensive. There would be no point in charging high admission fees for those gigs anyway—his backing band is so large that it can often violate Chinese laws that enforce crowd limits.

Ai also has several detractors. They praise his activism but scoff at his art, saying the former only furthers the latter. Even some of his admirers can’t help but question the growth of Ai’s public persona.

Zhang Mingqiang, a lauded artist and co-founder of yet another Beijing art colony called Songzhuang, says “Ai is becoming more and more famous with each incident. And there are even officers in the government who need him to say what they can’t. It keeps escalating—he and the government are becoming co-dependent.”

But Ai says he isn’t phased by such critiques.

“They can think what they like about me. I don’t care, I just want to help show people what we should be fighting for. I’m not fighting for myself.”