The work of the dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has included installing one hundred million porcelain “seeds” in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, designing Beijing’s 2008 Olympic stadium and even producing photographs of himself giving the finger to China’s Forbidden City. And now, he is adding a heavy metal album to his oeuvre.
Ai, 55, who has gained notoriety partly through his rock-star attitude, is recording his debut metal album in a basement in east Beijing “with nearly no oxygen”, he says.
“It surprises me that I’m doing it,” he told The Independent in a telephone interview. “If someone told me a few months ago that I would be doing a heavy metal album, I wouldn’t have believed them.”
Ai said his new musical project was partly inspired by Elton John, who angered Chinese authorities in November when he dedicated his Beijing concert to Ai. “With Elton John’s concert, I was so impressed how music creates such a big impact. He’s very generous and very brave to do what he did,” he said.
Ai spent 81 days in detention in 2011, prompting an international outcry. In September, a Beijing court upheld a £1.6m fine against him for tax evasion. He insists the charges were trumped up in retaliation for his criticism of China’s government.
He says this experience also encouraged him to make a record. “In detention, the guards used to often ask me to sing songs, and I was ashamed I didn’t know any,” said Ai. The album’s working title is Divina Commedia, as in Dante’s poem.
Although he has no experience in the music business, Ai was keen to record the album as a reaction to the propaganda music which once dominated China’s arts. “I have no tradition in music. I grew up in a desert, and the only music was propaganda music and that made me sick,” he said.
“We’re in the final stages of mixing it right now, I’m working hard with my musician friend who is a producer. I write the lyrics and sing the vocals,” said Ai.
One of the songs on the album is called “Hotel Americana”, a political joke about how the legal activist Chen Guangcheng took shelter at the US embassy in Beijing, and also how Wang Lijun, the former police chief under disgraced Communist leader Bo Xilai, sought shelter at the US consulate in Chengdu last year.
So is there any chance of Ai and Sir Elton working on a song together? “Like I say, I’m not a music person. But I would be very thrilled to hear it if there’s a chance to work with him,” said Ai.