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Visual Discourse of Ai Weiwei


Biographical knowledge of the artist, including his 81-day detention by Chinese officials
in 2011 (Ramzy, 2011), contributed to the meaning potential of the gazes and gestures exhibited
in these two frames. Knowledge of his countrys political past was informative as well. Ais high
vertical angle gaze appears to target the panoptic gaze (Sturken & Cartwright, 2001) of an
oppressive government whose power emanates from its ability to watch if not control his every
move. Such a reading is plausible based upon the Chinese symbolic reference of the sun to
Chairman Mao Zedong, founder of the socialist state and upon Ais previous use of the
symbolism in Sunflowers, a 2010 installation work (Bingham, 2011; Jervis, Springer, 2011).
As Ai returns the gaze, however, a reverse panopticism (Caperchi, 2012) is implied as he asserts
confrontational power. If the sunglasses are perceived as a form of mask, their removal suggests
that Ai has willingly unmasked himself to the glare of State surveillance; another powerful act.
This representation is replicated by the first three sequential frames spotlighted in Figure 2,
suggesting its importance to the meaning of the work. Finally, the oblique nature of Ais gaze
situates the viewer as voyeur (Lister & Wells, 2001) and invests her with vigilant power; power
awarded exponentially as the video parody interpellates (Althusser, 1999/1994) others through
the far-reaching gaze of the Worldwide Web.
Not all gazes enacted by Ai in the video are oblique angle gazes. Peppered throughout
are those which demonstrate frontal angles. Jewitt & Oyama (2001) explain that this type of
gaze increase[s] audience identification and involvement (p. 138) with the individual(s)
depicted and in the action taking place. Combined with gesture in the video parody under
investigation, it serves to communicate the gaze as power discourse as well.
Figure 2 displays a series of five sequential frames from the data collection log which
demonstrate a shift in gaze and new significance potential for the crossed-wrist dance gesture. In

Visual Discourse of Ai Weiwei

Frame 2.2, Ai exhibits an unmasked, oblique, high vertical angle gaze toward the upper right
corner of the frame as he inserts his right hand into his right jacket pocket. In Frame 2.3, he
initiates the removal of handcuffs from this pocket as he produces an oblique, high vertical angle
gaze toward the upper left corner of the frame. Dangling the handcuffs from his left hand in
Frame 2.4, he crosses his right wrist over his left to form the crossed-wrist dance gesture
commonly seen throughout the video, this time gazing frontally into the camera with a
mischievous smile and raised eyebrows. In the final frame (2.5) of the sequence, he swings the
handcuffs over his head in a lassoing gesture as he dances; a movement that connotes agency and
power. This reading is reinforced by a wide-eyed smile and the frontal angle gaze.
Cultural knowledge expands the meaning potential of the cross-wrist gesture as it is
exhibited in Frame 2.4, communicating a joyously confrontational version of the gaze as power
discourse conveyed at this moment in the video. The same metaphoric gesture (Norris, 2004)
appears in the Korean original where it references horseback riding and might be regarded as a
necessarily appropriated element that marries the parody to its inspirational source. Biographical
knowledge of the artist and his human rights efforts permits greater semiotic potential for this
gesture to be gleaned which include possible references to Ais recent detention by Chinese
officials or a more generic reading of governmental constraints on freedom of expression
anywhere. An additional culturally-based reading, particularly for Chinese viewers, is more
provocative still as it alludes to grass mud horse which is a reoccurring statement in the artists
work (Wines, 2009b). This term simultaneously references a mythical creature, an innocent
childs toy, a phonetically similar profanity in Chinese (Fisher, 2012) and ultimately, resistance to
censorship (Wines, 2009b). When associated with the ubiquitous crossed-wrist gesture exhibited
throughout the video, it is at once an artistic referent, a symbol of constraint and a shameless

Visual Discourse of Ai Weiwei

confrontation. Admittedly, it is impossible to assert this unequivocally without interviewing the

artist about his intent, but the cultural and semiotic potential for this kind of a reading appears to
be there.
Coding Key
Yellow highlight = gaze
Green highlight = power
Fuschia highlight = gesture




((while dancing, moves right hand

down to remove sunglasses;


((squints at brightness of sun:

oblique angle gaze))
((dance sequence #5 gazes upward
to his right in oblique angle gaze w/
high vertical angle; inserts right
hand in right jacket pocket))

Analysis / Meaning Potential

((gesture may reference selfunmasking in the glare of State
scrutiny; perhaps also vulnerability;
which is self-imposed by highprofile activities))
((sun may reference State & its
panoptic gaze))
((high vertical angle gaze may
reference domination by oppressive
power structure))
((no glasses may reference


((Ai removes handcuffs from right

pocket as he continues to dance;
swings handcuffs above head while
dancing; frontal angle gaze))

((handcuffs may reference recent

detention; handcuff winging appears
to be an affront))

((Ai crosses wrists, holding

handcuffs; frontal angle; gazes
directly at camera; smiling facial
expression; mischievous-appearing
raised eyebrows; crouches
somewhat as he dances which
implies energy and intensity))

((frontal angle gaze; demand image;

confrontational; smile indicates
satisfaction and personal power))

((dance sequence #7 Ai dances,

swings handcuffs over head; frontal
angle gaze w/ animated facial

((confrontational gaze w/ happy




Figure 2: Data Log Excerpt

((swinging handcuffs appears as a

mocking gesture; In your face))

Visual Discourse of Ai Weiwei

Hallidaian Analysis
As previously stated, Hallidays concept of metafunctions (as cited in Jewitt & Oyama,
2001) supplemented my analysis of how these modes worked in tandem to visually communicate
the artists gaze as power discourse. As a means for conceptually synthesizing the studys
findings, it also provides an apt conclusion for this report. My analysis revealed that gaze and
gesture functioned ideationally to both denote and connote multiple meanings as they conveyed
Ai Weiweis discourse visually. Identification of panoptic gazes and metaphoric gestures are
examples of this. The semiotic resources of gaze and gesture functioned interpersonally as well
to relate participants to perceived panoptic overseers, to the singular viewer, and to the Internet
community at large. This was exemplified by Ais frontal angle gaze in Frame 2:4 of Figure 2.
Finally and as documented in the data log excerpts, these modes functioned textually to advance
the gaze as power discourse which united all frames, shots, and scenes within Ais parody.
Multimodal analysis revealed that their dynamic interplay and meaning potentials permitted
various versions of the discourse to coexist cohesively in a visually exciting and conceptually
provocative post-modern artwork. Though many more exemplars were discovered throughout
my investigation, time and space constraints required that they be left for subsequent reports and
continued multimodal study.
In this investigation, I have examined one multimodal text a video parody created by
the artist, Ai Weiwei, for evidence that a gaze as power discourse was present and being
communicated visually in his work. What my investigation revealed is that through the semiotic
modes of gaze and gesture, Ai has conveyed various versions of this ideological discourse
simultaneously in visual and visible ways. First, the visual artwork has attracted the gaze of a

Visual Discourse of Ai Weiwei

youthful public so that they might engage with his message and contemplate its meanings as they
gaze toward the future. This was exemplified by Ais choice of genre and its distribution
mechanism the Internet with its power to attract the gaze of multitudes. Secondly, Ai has
confronted social injustice and limits on free expression by attracting the policing gaze (Norris,
2004) of his powerful government, communicating his criticism of them and to them in an
audaciously public way. Finally, through a pop music genre with broad appeal, Ais has solicited
the protective gaze of the international community to safeguard himself from the danger into
which his art and politics have placed him. Consequently, the public gaze has become a panoptic
one (Sturken & Cartwright, 2001) with eyes on the Chinese government; in a twist of irony, the
policer has suddenly become the policed. All of this evidences that, in the hands of a talented
and creative master, the gaze as power discourse has been ingeniously communicated in a
highly visual way.
Clearly, the interpretation of Ai Weiweis video parody and its unifying discourse as
presented in this study are speculative with any assertions based on a general knowledge of the
artist, multimodality, and educated guessing. Further research into Ai Weiweis work, the
grammar of visual language and multimodal analysis are needed to substantiate any claims.
Nonetheless, this study has initiated an intriguing query into the expressive possibilities and
semiotic potential being explored by a persecuted artist working diligently to make a difference
for others. It has certainly motivated curiosity for me that will fuel continuing investigation into
some very intriguing research questions.

Visual Discourse of Ai Weiwei

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Visual Discourse of Ai Weiwei