Ai Weiwei at the Design Museum, September 2022. © Rick Pushinsky for the Design Museum
What does design reveal about our changing values? For the first time, Ai Weiwei presents his work as a commentary on design in this major exhibition created in collaboration with the Design Museum in London. Renowned contemporary artist, activist, and exiled Chinese dissident, Ai Weiwei makes use of various mediums to examine society and its values, encouraging a practice of reflection among his audience. Focusing on a dialogue between the traditional craftsmanship of historical Chinese artefacts and the country’s recent history of demolition and urban development, Ai reflects on erased or forgotten histories and skills.
Through a collection of recent works and newly commissioned pieces, this exhibition explores the relationship between past and present, construction and destruction. With extensive collections of objects on the floor, impressive sculptures, and seemingly ordinary objects, this exhibition is anything but conventional. Divided into three main categories, Evidence, Construction/Destruction, and Ordinary Things, this powerful exhibition will draw you into a meditation on value and humanity, and art and activism.
These five large ‘fields’ of objects, collected by the artist since the 1990s, and some pre-dating the Industrial Revolution, serve as material ‘evidence’ of the lost craft skills and forgotten cultural values of ancient civilisations.
The exhibition doors open onto a field of over 200,000 porcelain cannonballs made during the Song dynasty (960-1279 CE) from the high-quality porcelain Xing ware. Hand-made and seemingly delicate, these porcelain balls were weapons of war. Just as delicate are the 250,000 porcelain spouts from teapots crafted during the same time, broken off when a pot was imperfect, and just as broken are the remains of Ai’s own porcelain sculptures destroyed when his Beijing studio was demolished by the Chinese state in 2018 due to his political activism. Other than underlining the value of traditional craftsmanship, through these objects the artist offers a commentary on the repression of the individual and freedom of speech.
Accompanying the fields is additional evidence, including one of Ai’s porcelain sculptures, Bubble (2008), that survived the destruction of his studio, and various other jade and porcelain objects.
Ai Weiwei, Untitled (Porcelain Balls), 2022. © Image courtesy Ai Weiwei Studio.
The question of value is then examined through a reflection on the mass destruction that comes with rapid construction, as a result of China’s recent urban expansion. Photos and videos in the exhibition document the changing landscape of Beijing, particularly focusing on the period of intense development in the early 2000s.
You will also find a pigment print version of Ai’s famous photographic series Study of Perspective (2022), which he began in 1995, depicting his middle finger in front of cultural and political landmarks across the world, as a rejection of the power held by these institutions. Impossible to miss are also two large snake sculptures, one made with life vests and the other with backpacks, to memorialise the victims of the refugee crisis in Europe and the 90,000 people who died in the 2008 earthquake in China’s Sichuan province, a tragedy which several other of his works allude to.
Yet, the most striking work is Water Lilies #1(2022), the artist’s colourful recreation of Claude Monet’s iconic impressionist painting, a large mosaic made from 650,000 Lego bricks. Ai’s version, however, includes a dark portal representing the entrance of the underground dugout where he and his father, Ai Qing, lived in forced exile during the artist’s early life in the 1960s.
Ai Weiwei, Marble Toilet Paper, 2020. © Image courtesy Ai Weiwei Studio
Through the creation of ordinary objects using precious materials such as marble, glass, and jade, Ai transforms useful but worthless everyday objects into something useless but valuable. A marble takeaway container, a glass helmet, a glass roll of toilet paper: what is the real value of these objects? These works bring mass production and traditional craftsmanship together, questioning the possibility of their coexistence.
Making sense of this exhibition means making sense of our values, reflecting on the traditional qualities that we have lost in favour of endless production and consumerism. In this exhibition, Ai Weiwei’s thoroughly engaging and provocative work will reveal what material culture, especially design, can indicate about humanity and our changing conditions.
'Ai Weiwei: Making Sense' was at the Design Museum, where his work 'Water Lilies #1' is now part of the museum's permanent collection.
Edited by Samuel Blackburn