I was late to learning about Gangnam Style. One night I was at a café and was socially garish enough to ask my companions what it was. ‘You don’t know about Gangnam style?,’ they gasped, half impressed, half horrified. ‘She doesn’t know about Gangnam style. Everybody knows about Gangnam style …’ I went home with the sticky sounding words in my head, trying to figure out how to pronounce them.
Of course, from that point on I started to see it everywhere. It kept popping up online, it was playing in the background in taxis. Even my four year old knew about it from kindergarten, and gave her own rendition of the South Korean rap with her own wonky dancing. I soon realised that more than the song itself, the point of the craze was its use for parody – originally of Seoul’s wannabe fashionistas, and later of all kinds of people and social phenomena. At this point, there are literally hundreds of adaptations of the dance uploaded to Youtube, each one a spin off from the original with its nonsensical horse-riding dance moves.
I suppose it’s because of the jig’s horsey characteristics that Ai Weiwei has now picked it up and turned it to his own light-hearted music video critique. Ai’s clip is a clear reference to the Grass Mud Horse – China’s own popular and virally transmitted parody – and so is also an oblique reference to China’s Internet censorship. (Grass Mud Horse sounds like F*** Your Mother, but is written differently, and now references a whole lexicon of other such homonyms that allow people to skirt censorship online).
Watching the Ai Weiwei version, I puzzled all over again as to how this song had become such a phenomenon. It’s kind of boring and stupid, but I guess as a parody of tossers and posers that’s largely the point. Surrounded by mates, both Chinese and foreign, Ai Weiwei jiggles around like a Mongolian horseman, swinging a pair of handcuffs over his head. The clip is low-fi and borrows images from the original PSY video: close-ups of cheesy hip swinging and booty. Ai Weiwei actually bears some resemblance to the Korean rapper, and is obviously enjoying the cheap hilarity of the whole situation. Lame as it is, Ai’s rendition is a sign of the artists’ insistent playfulness in the face of authority, the stupidity of the performance a sign of his refusal to take things seriously.
It won’t be much more than a footnote in the history of Ai Weiwei’s art and political career, but like the Grass Mud Horse, Ai’s Gangnam style is curious enough for its very existence. It’s ridiculous, it’s irreverent, and is a sign that Ai Weiwei can still joke around, despite his detention by authorities last year. For the Ai Weiwei haters (and there are plenty) the clip is easy to write off, but then so was the Gangnam Style craze at its outset. If nothing else, Gangnam Style says something about the ability of a cultural meme to go global, without people necessarily understanding why. My guess is that it is this infectiousness that attracted Ai Weiwei to the phenomenon, another chapter in his fascination with the immediacy of popular media and social networking. In China, the dynamic of the viral is particularly potent, no less so if it baffles at first, only gradually revealing itself to be mockery.