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China's Artist Provocateur Explores New Medium: Heavy Metal

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China's Artist Provocateur Explores New Medium: Heavy Metal

China's Artist Provocateur Explores New Medium: Heavy Metal

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

A man who's been called the most powerful artist in the world is trying his hand at rock stardom. The dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has made a music video. It's inspired by the 81 days he spent in detention in 2011. NPR's Louisa Lim met him this morning in Beijing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC VIDEO)

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: The video shows Ai Weiwei sitting in a chair, a black hood over his head. Written on it are the words: suspected criminal. As he paces the cell, two guards pace with him. As he sleeps, they stand by his bed. This dissolves into the fantasies of the prison guards; ending with Ai, head shaved, dancing in drag. It's a dystopian nightmare, and that's the point.

AI WEIWEI: At least you shared my nightmares. And I had terrible nightmares after I was released. But think about so many political prisoners. They're still in jail. So I make my music to give to them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC VIDEO)

LIM: Ai's voice is angry, the lyrics too explicit to translate. He compares China to a prostitute. Even the song's title is intentionally confrontational. Ai Weiwei explains the choice of name.

WEIWEI: Dumbass, we call somebody who still have illusion about this political condition and have illusion to think there's possibility to make some kind of change. I think the system itself refused to make any kind of change.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC VIDEO)

LIM: As he taps away incessantly on Twitter, Ai Weiwei seems to be a global brand. In person, he cannot leave Beijing, having had his passport taken away. But he has one exhibition in Indianapolis, another piece in Hong Kong. Three projects are coming up in the Venice Biennale, as well as a traveling exhibition heading for Princeton, Cleveland and Miami. He's in this month's Playboy magazine. There's a documentary about him, a book about his arrest and recently in London, a play was staged about his ordeal.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as Character) You have to admit the crimes.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (as Character) But it's not a court. I haven't been charged. Why do I have to?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as character) You have to. Trust me. If you don't, you'll never see us again. You'll never come back.

LIM: Speaking to the BBC, playwright Howard Brenton said the play was Ai Weiwei's own idea.

HOWARD BRENTON: I mean, we are part of his project, really. Ai Weiwei's work is like stones being thrown into a pond. The ripples sort of like shock waves get everywhere.

LIM: So what is his project anyway? I asked Ai Weiwei.

WEIWEI: My project is very simple. It's freedom.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC VIDEO)

LIM: He may not be able to sing in tune, but this, he believes, is the sound of freedom. Ai Weiwei believes every citizen with a voice should use it, and courage is not something to sacrifice. Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.

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