One of the powerful opportunities the video essay form offers is that it can refer to a rich repository of pre-existing audiovisual forms to make its point. It can use (or abuse) genre conventions, model itself on traditional forms (or remodel those forms), faithfully adapt tried and tested audiovisual rhetoric strategies or warp those same strategies to suit its own purpose.
That is exactly what Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei has done in making this 2013 music video, Dumbass. It uses the formal and iconographic conventions of MTV fodder, but here they serve a subversive goal: to give the middle finger to the Chinese government that put him in prison. Because this heavy metal music video is an extravagant visual reconstruction of the 81 days Ai Weiwei spent in detention, watched around the clock by several prison guards who wouldn’t leave his side. The artist has used that detention in several of his works since, ranging from dioramas to a cork statue. But this music video goes the farthest in reshaping his prison experience into a taunt of his captors.
Ai Weiwei (and cinematographer Christopher Doyle) use all the typical elements of this form: expressive and unrealistic lighting, frantic editing, wildly varying frame rates and erratic lens use, and scantily clad models. The result is a music video that, like the 1980ies videos of Bonnie Tyler, feverishly blurs the line between realism and fantasy. In doing so, Ai Weiwei achieves two things. First, this piece is a satirical commentary on the typical ingredients of the music video: Ai magnifies them to a comical degree. That is the video essay part of this work, one might say. Secondly, and more importantly, the Chinese activist uses the exuberant characteristics of the music video to transform his traumatizing detention into a frivolous and trivial experience. He ridicules his captors by recasting them as extras in this delirious fantasy. The lighthearted music video form here becomes a powerful weapon of political dissent.