The dramatic recreation of the rebel artist’s 81 days in detention at the hands of the Chinese government is about how an authoritarian state maintains tenuous control over the thoughts and behavior of its citizens.
The song’s title is translated into English as “Dumbass,” a word that appears to refer to China’s politically unconscious and inactive population. It is part of a six song album called “The Divine Comedy” that’s scheduled to come out June 22—the second anniversary of Ai Weiwei’s release from prison. It contains an “inch-accurate” depiction of the cell where he was held, Ai said. While in detention, he had nothing to do but memorize every detail, he added.
The New York Times reports that when Ai was illegally detained in 2011, the young paramilitary guards charged with watching him asked him to sing for them. He sang decades-old Communist revolutionary songs. They were stunned that he knew them, The Times wrote.
The video moves between a realistic depiction of the conditions Ai endured and a fantasy attributed to the guards, which would be forbidden by the Chinese government. The shift depicts the two-minded existence of many people living under authoritarian rule. Externally, they are going along with things but their thoughts are never brought fully under government control.
“Those soldiers secretly asked me about sex and about different things,” the artist said, as reported by the Times. “They are like prisoners in there,” he added. “They never can leave the building. And they don’t know what’s going on.”