Explaining Ai Weiwei’s New Meme

The image that launched Ai Weiwei's meme (via twitter.com/aiww)
The image that launched Ai Weiwei’s meme (via @aiww on Twitter)

It started on Instagram last Wednesday, when Ai Weiwei posted an image of a man holding his leg like a rifle with the words “京城反恐系列” (Beijing anti-terrorism series). In the following image, Ai Weiwei raised his leg to point it in the opposite direction. Soon, it became a meme.

Ai Weiwei shoots back. (via twitter.com/aiww)
Ai Weiwei shoots back (via @aiww on Twitter)

The Chinese dissident artist is no stranger to web lingo and memes: he’s previously inspired them, participated in them, and relied on them to spread information. But this new visual is notable because it generated a particularly cryptic new symbol that slowly spread even as people were unsure of its meaning.

In the days before Ai explained it, Nell Frazell made the most convincing case that it was a reference to the Chinese ballet “The Red Detachment of Women.” She explained:

The ballet was one of the eight model operas that monopolised the 1960s Chinese national landscape during the cultural revolution; a state-sanctioned depiction of one woman’s rise through the Communist party.

… While a reference to The Red Detachment of Women is no doubt subversive – riot grrl band Bikini Kill used it as an unofficial video for their 1993 single Rebel Girl for a reason – it is also playful.

This image, posted Saturday, June 14, combines the communist and ballet imagery. (via twitter.com/aiww)
This image, posted on Saturday, June 14, combines Communist and ballet imagery. (via @aiww on Twitter)

Today, Ai finally spoke to the media about the meme, which since its virtual launch has generated thousands of images across many social media platforms.

Batman is "armed." (via twitter.com/aiww)
Batman is “armed.” (via @aiww on Twitter)

“People from all over the world have been experiencing panic because of terrorist attacks such as 9-11 and problems such as the existence of weapons,” the artist said in an interview with the Associated Press. “Power is being overused in the name of counterterrorism.”

While memes are global, the leg-rifle gesture in particular can be interpreted many different ways around the world. In some Arabic-speaking countries and in many Buddhist nations, it’s considered disrespectful to show the sole of your foot to another, so this is a slight to authority. Is it a parody of authority in general? Ai’s new meme has the advantage of being distinctive without being obvious, and universal enough to being easily translated into various contexts.

Part of the genius of Ai Weiwei’s web-based projects (undoubtedly his strongest body of work) is that they convey a sense of speak truth to power without always being crystal clear about his intended target. That makes them adaptable.

A view of the 24 art hackathon at London's Tate Modern last weekend (via twitter.com/edjsimpson)
A view of last weekend’s art hackathon at London’s Tate Modern by Ed J. Simpson (via @edjsimpson on Twitter)

Last Friday, Ai also provided a list of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake victims to participants in a 24-hour art hackathon at London’s Tate Modern. The “hackers” were invited to make digital artworks based on the data. I immediately saw parallels between this project and the leg-rifle gesture. Memes, like ideas, go viral when people feel a sense of ownership and transform them to suit their perspectives. Ai Weiwei did not invent the earthquake data; he simply compiled it. He did not originate the leg-rifle gesture; he simply amplified its rebelliousness so that others could feel momentarily powerful in a global culture that breeds powerlessness.

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