The Making of Anish Kapoor’s Politically Charged "Gangnam Style" Video

The Making of Anish Kapoor’s Politically Charged "Gangnam Style" Video
Anish Kapoor and Tamara Rojo rehearsing at Kapoor's studio
(Photo: Coline Milliard)

LONDON — Yesterday, 250 people gathered at Anish Kapoor’s vast studio in South London to shoot a "Gangnam Style" tribute video in support of Ai Weiwei and political dissidents across the globe.

The piece, of course, is a response to a parody clip of Psy’s K-pop hit circulated by the Chinese artist and activist three weeks ago for which he transformed the original horse riding-themed choreography into an evocation of handcuffed hands. The video went viral, but Ai Weiwei’s tongue-in-cheek comment on the lack of freedom in China didn’t go down well with the authorities, which blocked it shortly after its release.

At the studio doors last night, assistants were handing out leaflets with a message from Kapoor. It read: In this time of economic difficulty it would appear that governments all over the world are afraid to criticize authoritarian regimes and as a result human rights and freedom of expression suffer for many million of people. IT IS OUR DUTY NOW AS INDIVIDUALS TO ACT.”

Turner Prize winner Mark Wallinger, Bob & Roberta Smith, and English National Ballet artistic director and principal dancer at the Tamara Rojo joined art worlders, human rights activists from Index on Censorship and Amnesty International, Goldsmiths art students, and members of National Youth Orchestra. Star choreographer Akram Khan directed the enthusiastic gathering. “Show your fist, this is a protest,” he said to the crowd during the first group scene.

Kapoor appeared perfectly at ease in his role, dancing away with handcuffs and sunglasses, or holding a banner spelling “End Repression Allow Expression” as Rojo twirled around him. In another shot, Rojo danced ballerina-style in front of a line of masked participants, their middle fingers raised.

“Our video aims to make a serious point about freedom of speech and freedom of expression,” said Kapoor. “It is our hope that this gesture of support for Ai Weiwei will be wide-ranging and will help to emphasize how important these freedoms are to us all.” 

Index on Censorship and Amnesty International had covered the set with placards bearing the names of numerous victims of censorship, and provided masks bearing the faces of imprisoned activists and human rights campaigners in China. “It’s not unusual, when you’ve got an extremely high profile, to want to use it to shine light unto a much broader issue,” Index on Censorship Head of Arts Julia Farrington told ARTINFO UK. “That’s absolutely part of the way Ai Weiwei is in the world — to say: ‘it’s happening everywhere, we can’t let this stuff let slip as if it doesn’t matter.’”

Participants were handed black tape to wear on their mouths and comic sunglasses, and the studio floor was strewn with plastic crabs. In Chinese, the word “crab” is very similar to the word “harmony,” often bandied about by the government. As his Shanghai studio was to be destroyed in 2010, the ever-ironic Ai Weiwei organized a river crab feast. On that occaision, the artist himself was prevented from attending, but some 800 other people did, and the crustacean has become a symbol for state censorship. During the shoot many people took to wearing the plastic toys on their lapels.

“Anish found his political voice through taking his work out from a British Council exhibition in China last year, in protest of what’s happening to Ai Weiwei,” explained Farrington. “He said in the speech at the Lisson Gallery that he found it really empowering. This event is absolutely a continuity of that experience.”

Other organizations and artists have also come on board. The Tate, the Guggenheim, MoMA, and the New Museum in New York are said to be preparing their own take on the song, and artists Cornelia Parker and Jane and Louise Wilson, among others, are also said to be working on a contribution. All of these will be put together and edited in a video to be released on YouTube early next week.